Plans for the proposed $1.3 billion expressway being pushed by the governors of Illinois and Indiana was passed Thursday by a planning agency that has criticized the project as an expensive boondoggle.
With an 11-8 vote, The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's policy committee passed the inclusion of the so-called Illiana tollway linking Interstate 55 in Illinois and Interstate 65 in Indiana in its long-term development plan for the region, a step necessary for the project to receive federal funding.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence have pushed hard for a 47-mile link, promising it would help speed goods by truck, reduce congestion and create thousands of jobs. They also say private investors would be sought to pay most of the cost for building, operating and maintaining the road under a 35-year deal, with tolls repaying the debt.
“Today marks a major victory for economic development and jobs in the Southland, which will strengthen Illinois’ economy and pave the way for future growth,” Quinn said in a statement. “I applaud the members of the MPO Policy Committee for making the Illiana a priority."
But the planning agency's own analysis concluded that the route's traffic and tolls would fall short, leaving Illinois taxpayers on the hook for up to $1.1 billion. Its board of directors voted against the project last week, with the board chairman criticizing the project as "highway in nowhere land" and complaining that Quinn has unfairly pressured the board. But the agency's policy committee has the last word — and it has been lobbied hard by unions, business groups and elected officials who support the tollway.
What's more, the committee's chairwoman is Illinois Department of Transportation Director Ann Schneider, a gubernatorial appointee who touts the corridor as a smart investment that will encourage the expansion of intermodal freight facilities eager for a new route for trucks that are getting caught in existing congestion.
The project is necessary for Illinois' transport hubs to stay competitive with places such as Memphis, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio, which are investing heavily in infrastructure to support intermodal shipping, Schneider told The Associated Press in an interview this week.
"We are definitely interested in making sure that we provide the necessary infrastructure to keep the economy moving forward," Schneider said Tuesday, adding that construction alone on the three- or four-year project would create 9,000 jobs in the state.
She also said the planning agency's projection that toll revenue would fall short was flawed, but that her department could not provide the agency with the financial data it needs for a full analysis because making those numbers public could jeopardize any future bidding process.
IDOT said it could take up to 18 years for the tolls to start generating a profit, but the state eventually could reap $300 million to $500 million that it could reinvest in other transportation projects. But the upfront public cost would be significant, perhaps as much as $500 million for land acquisition and other costs. The state has already spent $40 million studying the project, Schneider said.
Three environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit over the project, claiming the Federal Highway Administration violated the law by approving an environmental study that failed to adequately assess potential impacts to endangered wildlife, critical habitat and other sensitive areas, and was based on inflated population and jobs projections. They also complain that the tollway, which would traverse rural areas and high-quality farmland, would lead to urban sprawl.