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Illiana hearing draws opponents even as momentum builds

EldStrong Lake County Council 7th District voice his dislike for new toll road Tuesday night.| Dan Shelton/Sun-Times Media

Eldon Strong of the Lake County Council 7th District voice his dislike for the new toll road Tuesday night.| Dan Shelton/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 20, 2014 6:50AM



LOWELL — A steady stream of residents numbering in the hundreds filled Lowell Middle School on Tuesday for a chance to see the latest proposed path of the Illiana Expressway and speak out on the record about the project. The vast majority of those attending oppose the highway.

Land acquisition could begin as soon as this summer and construction could start by summer 2015 if momentum for the proposed highway continues.

The Indiana Department of Transportation and Illinois Department of Transportation are conducting public hearings for the Draft Tier II Environmental Impact Study, one of the final steps necessary before the final environmental study is approved and record of decision is issued by the U.S. Highway Department.

Officials from both agencies expect to have the record of decision by the end of May, which would allow officials from both states to move forward with land acquisition and requests for proposals. Jim Earl, INDOT project manager, said neither state is prepared to do so until federal approval is obtained.

The latest preferred route for the tollway brings the Interstate 65 interchange about three-tenths of a mile closer to the Indiana 2 interchange.

The impact of the road on property owners is becoming more clear. Tweaks in the roadway path since the Tier I study have brought the project right through some homeowners’ properties.

Jim Surprenant said the road cuts a diagonal through his property. The portion of his land the state wants to buy will cut through his farmable land. The highway, when complete, will be 250 feet from his bedroom window.

“You can’t possibly understand,” an angry Surprenant said as he waited to talk to INDOT’s land acquisition specialists. His friend Linda Barbaria, who lives in Lowell, said the highway is far enough away from her property, but she is concerned about what the highway will do to homeowners like Surprenant.

The impact on property owners, farms and the environment keeps members of No Illiana For Us fighting against the highway.

“We’re still optimistic we can stop it,” said Pat Mussman, one of the group’s Indiana organizers.

Mussman said the group remains hopeful as the data is reviewed the no-build option will prevail over the B-3 route on the table. She said environmental issues have not been resolved and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to sign off on the deal.

“A lot of environmental issues have not been addressed yet,” she said. Her husband, West Creek Township Trustee Harold Mussman said there also remains the issue of providing emergency services to motorists on the new roadway. Construction of the highway will remove property from the tax rolls while local emergency service providers are expected to provide adequate staffing and equipment to cover highway accidents.

Earl said INDOT officials are working with emergency service providers to best accommodate road closure requests, but there is nothing they can do about compensating the taxing bodies for the emergency services they provide.

Not everyone at the public hearing was against the Illiana.

Gerard Vasko of West Creek Township said he understands why the property owners who will have the highway come on their land are upset, but the road represents progress and jobs.

“Sooner or later something has to be done,” Vasko said.

As a retired iron worker he said he knows the project would mean an influx of good jobs in the short term.

“There are pros and cons to everything,” he said.



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