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Commentary: Andrew Steele: Illiana opponents need a new case

Updated: February 26, 2013 12:02PM



One thing about interstate highways is that they’re purpose has little to do with any particular place they pass through; it’s more about offering a quick path to all the points on the map it connects.

When it comes to building a new stretch of interstate, the arguments of a particular point on that map can be overwhelmed by the arguments of everyone who will benefit from the new road.

So it’s been thus far for opponents of the proposed Illiana toll road. They do benefit some from the fact that it would be a short road, and just about every point along it is protesting it.

But it’s difficult to stop a project like this when you’re making the same arguments everyone makes — and generally loses. The transportation planners have heard it all, and overruled it all, before.

My general understanding is those arguments center around the impact on the environment (including the impact on sight and sound); the impact on north-south passage, particularly for emergency services vehicles; and the displacement of property owners.

The key for Illiana opponents will be to describe why their situation is different from countless others whose similar arguments have been dismissed. It’s not clear to me how it is.

One of the worst things that happened to Illiana opponents was the shrinking of the road so that it’s Indiana terminus is at Interstate 65. That drastically shrank the number of Indiana residents directly impacted by the road, and shrank their political power accordingly.

Added to the general issues surrounding interstate highways are questions of the proposed toll road’s economic viability, when free east-west routes are available, and the issue of the road improving the possibility of a Peotone airport, thus hurting Gary’s.

The viability issue is tough to address. What happens if a toll road goes bankrupt?

The fact is, policy-makers tend to like the private-owner, user-fee model, at least in Northwest Indiana, because they believe it’s a way to get revenue from out-of-state users (not unlike casinos). Again, local people just aren’t the issue. It’s the people passing through, many of them on a company dime, for whom time is money, who will make or break the business model.

The potential of a Peotone airport is a good effort to get north Lake County (and some Chicago) politicians who oppose Peotone on board with opposition to Illiana, but many of them already are, but don’t seem to be gaining much traction.

Turning the Gary/Chicago International Airport into a significant regional airport has become a useful political goal for a lot of people, but as a realistic goal it’s much more questionable, Peotone or no Peotone.

In the end, it seems that the anti-Illiana folks either need to find a lot more old-fashioned, back-room political power, or a fresh argument that would overturn the old arguments that consistently win these debates.



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