Opinion: Too Many Unanswered Questions About Illiana Expressway

Politicians must prove it won't be a boondaggle

Despite the support of key figures like Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, opposition is growing to the proposed Illiana Expressway connecting Illinois and Indiana.

Which is good, because there are just too many unanswered questions about the project at this point, particularly around whether it will place yet another crushing debt burden around the necks of Illinois taxpayers.

The 50-mile expressway project, slated to join Interstate 55 in Illinois and Interstate 65 in Indiana, is being touted by Quinn, Kirk, Indiana Governor Mike Pence and others as a net benefit for the area’s transportation needs. They point to construction jobs being created, the potential for reduced bottlenecks along nearby I-80, and likely future economic growth in the communities alongside the route.

However, a coalition of voices is coming together to oppose the project, including environmental groups, the Chicago Tribune editorial board and concerned citizens likely to be effected by the project.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is considering whether to accept an Illinois Department of Transportation request to include the project in it GO To 2040 strategic plan. The agency has votes scheduled for Oct. 9 and Oct. 17.   Under state law, such inclusion is required before federal funds are available. The agency, however, asked for public comment on the plan and an overwhelming majority of those public comments were not supportive of the toll road. 

Part of the problem is the states’ decision to use a public-private partnership, or PPP, to fund the project. PPPs are seen in many quarters as innovative ways to finance public works projects by having private companies share some or all of the burden of initial project costs in return for payments down the road. Indiana has used them in the past, but for Illinois the Illiana project would be a first.

In fact, Sen. Kirk explicitly pointed to the PPP as a key reason he supports the project. In a letter Tuesday to CMAP, Kirk and Indiana Senator Dan Coats said “With no additional revenues expected in the near future [for capital projects], we should look to innovative financing to address a piece of our funding needs.”

There’s just three problems: One, CMAP and others have said the Illiana might not reduce traffic congestion while destroying critical environmental areas and fail to supply projected economic benefits. Two, no one has said yet exactly how the PPP for Illiana will work. And three, no one has said who, exactly, will pick up the tab for millions in cost overruns the project could incur.

In it’s report, CMAP noted that “The proposed facility's estimated cost and potential financing structure expose the state of Illinois to extensive financial risk,” and that information provided to justify the project's financial viability has been incomplete and largely anecdotal.

CMAP also noted that details about the PPP were sketchy, and that under some funding scenarios the project could require a public subsidy of between $440 million and $1.1 billion. Without knowing how the PPP will work, it’s difficult to understand who exactly those cost overruns would be paid to.

No one in Illinois needs to be told the state already doesn't have a dime to spare for critical needs like paying its past due bills, funding critical human service programs, or finding a solution to it’s worst-in-the-nation pension crisis.

As a result, it’s difficult to understand politicians lining up for a project that is unproven at best and disastrous at worst. Or for anyone to support a plan whose critical funding details are sketchy at best.

Unless we ask ourselves one simple question: Who, exactly, is this project designed to benefit? 

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