Strong push for $1.3B Illiana Expressway before vote - KMSP-TV

Strong push for $1.3B Illiana Expressway before vote

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WILMINGTON, Ill. (Sun-Times Media Wire) -

Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider traveled to Will County on Wednesday to make one last push for the $1.3 billion Illiana Expressway.

The 47-mile tollway, which would connect Interstate 55 near Wilmington with Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind., will create construction jobs, spur economic development and make local roads safer, Schneider told area officials who gathered at a news conference in the parking lot of the Operating Engineers Local 150 Training Center on South Arsenal Road.

Schneider's appearance came two days after her boss, Gov. Pat Quinn, made a similar pitch in Tinley Park to the Chicago Southland Chamber of Commerce. The two officials have spent much of the summer touting the benefits of the highway, which would be the state's first project built through a public-private partnership.

But the fate of the proposed tollway rests with the federally mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee, which is scheduled to vote Thursday afternoon on whether to include the project in the Chicago area's long-range transportation plan.

Without a positive vote, the Illiana could be dead. Earlier this month, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, a regional planning agency created by the General Assembly, denied a request to add the Illiana Expressway to the federal funding list. But that vote was advisory.

Schneider made a plea Wednesday for the 19-member MPO committee, which she chairs, to at least give the Illiana a chance to be considered by companies that could bid on being the private partner.

If that happens and the Illiana Expressway is built, the developer would get a 35-year lease and revenue from tolls to pay for construction, operation and maintenance of the road while kicking out an estimated $300 million to $500 million in revenue for other state road projects, Schneider said.

Critics of the plan, including CMAP staff, say the estimated cost to build the highway is too low, economic spinoff would be much less than predicted and toll revenue and long-term job creation would fall short of projections.

But local officials say South Cook and Will counties are due for a major investment that will support the area's growing logistics development, which includes two intermodal centers in Joliet and Elwood that have created the largest inland port in North America. They argue that if private investors don't see the tollway as a good bet, it won't be built.

In recent weeks, the Illiana Expressway debate has turned into a north vs. south issue with northern Cook County and Chicago representatives opposing it, and officials from South Cook and Will counties promoting it as a necessary investment in an area referred to as "Nowhere Land" or "Forgotonia."

But the population is growing in the southern areas, especially Will County, and that cannot be ignored, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields) said.

"When we drive home, we go somewhere," she said. "And that somewhere is really important to a whole lot of people out here."

State Sen. Pat McGuire (D-Joliet) said south Cook and Will counties suffered two major "economic catastrophes" when many manufacturing plants closed during the late 1970s and early 1980s and the housing bubble burst in 2008.

"Now we're the logistics belt," he said. "So jobs are returning to our county. Investments are returning to our county. ... But our recovery is threatened by (traffic) congestion."

Truck traffic congestion was illustrated Wednesday when semi trucks crashed on Interstate 55 in a construction zone, Channahon Mayor Joe Cook said.

"Since May 1, between Route 6 and Arsenal Road, 57 people have been injured (on I-55), not counting the accident (Wednesday), and there have been three fatalities," Cook said. "It's because (I-55) is congested, and construction makes a dangerous situation even worse."

Some Illiana Expressway opponents have questioned whether truck drivers would use a tollway when they could travel on interstates 55 and 80 for free.

But I-80 near the Indiana border "is gridlock, it's crazy, and it's been that way since I was a kid," Will County Board member Don Moran (D-Romeoville), a business representative for Sheet Metal Workers Local 265, said. "Plus, these trucks are using our county highways, and they're not built for 80,000-pound trucks."

MPO committee member Rich Kwasneski is chairman of the board for the Pace suburban bus agency and executive director of the Joliet Arsenal Development Authority. He plans to vote in favor of the Illiana Expressway.

"Time is money for the trucking industry," he said. "And if they're sitting in traffic with the trucks running, they're not making money."

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