Metra and Pace Maintain Support for Illiana at the Expense of Transit

Metra, Tollway, Pace, RTA
Metra interim executive director Don Orseno (voted yes), Illinois Tollway executive director Kristy LaFleur (yes), Pace board member Richard Kwasneski (yes), and RTA's senior deputy executive director of planning Leanne Redden (no).

Yesterday, 11 members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization policy committee, including Metra and Pace, voted to add the Illiana Tollway to the GO TO 2040 regional plan. This enables the Illinois DOT and Indiana DOT to move forward with the project approvals necessary to receive federal funds.

It also sets the stage for huge sums to be siphoned from GO TO 2040’s existing transportation project list — including transit investments — which is supposed to focus future growth in existing communities. In a scathing response, the Active Transportation Alliance today singled out Metra and Pace for voting against the interests of transit riders.

At the meeting, when it was time to talk about the Illiana, IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider joked to the overflow crowd, “Now we’re on the least controversial agenda item.” She pointed to a stack of the letters from BNSF (owner of an intermodal yard near the proposed tollway) and the many state representatives and senators who wrote in after the public comment period. No one had time to actually review the letters before casting their vote.

Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which oversees the GO TO 2040 regional plan, reiterated why CMAP staff recommended against funding the project. In addition to pointing out how the Illiana is at odds with GO TO 2040, Blankenhorn emphasized that IDOT overstated the share of intermodal truck and railroad traffic in Will County — where the highway would cut through — compared to other places in the region, and that IDOT is forecasting greater population growth in Will County than GO TO 2040 forecasts.

IDOT justifies the highway by saying it would serve a growing population and truck traffic, but basing new highway construction on such forecasts becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: The road itself attracts more population and freight movement. IDOT is in denial about this. In a document prepared for the Illiana environmental review process [PDF], IDOT claims that “land-use planning is not the role of IDOT/INDOT” and that “IDOT/INDOT is not driving land use.” While these statements were mostly intended to say that IDOT would not be doing land-use planning on behalf on the communities affected by the Illiana Tollway, IDOT is unequivocally involved in land-use planning, because any transportation project as big as the Illiana is bound to have a major impact on the surrounding area.

As Gary Toth of Project for Public Spaces writes, “some of the most egregious land use issues, both in America and in the world at large, stem from the misguided investment in transportation systems that prioritize high speed mobility. What inevitably follows is spread out development dependent on the automobile for access to critical needs.” By denying this link, IDOT diverges completely from CMAP’s goals. IDOT wants to build on farmland in rural Illinois, while GO TO 2040 says development should occur in existing communities.

Now that IDOT has the MPO policy committee’s approval, the agency can move forward with writing the final environmental impact statement and finish preparing a finance package. In response to criticism that the agency hasn’t given enough details about the financial risk, Schneider said, “we’re holding our cards close to our vest” and that they agency has “good ideas” on how to shorten the number of years that taxpayers would be on the hook to subsidize operations and maintenance.

Will County board member Regan Freitag
Will County board member Regan Freitag came to remind the committee that the proposed tollway would destroy farmland and displace homeowners.

Once the finance package is set, companies will respond with their bids. IDOT project manager Pete Harmet indicated that 15 “teams” have expressed their interest in the project.

To allow IDOT to enter into a public-private partnership (PPP) like this, an enabling law was passed in 2011. The Illinois legislature still has to approve any PPP project before a request for proposals is issued. The Metropolitan Planning Council, which advocated for the PPP law but against the inclusion of the Illiana into GO TO 2040, mentioned in 2011 another aspect of the law: “All projects considered for PPPs must be consistent with the corresponding region’s plan, provided the region has a Metropolitan Planning Organization.”

We all know how that worked out: CMAP said it was not consistent.

Before the vote yesterday, Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke called out Metra and Pace for supporting the Illiana at the CMAP transportation committee meeting earlier in October, exclaiming, “You have a choice: dilute and divert [transportation dollars] and support a project that has a lot of disagreement… or you focus these limited dollars on projects you actually agree on, projects in GO TO 2040. This vote may come down to Metra, Pace, and the Regional Transportation Authority. Stand up for your riders.” RTA voted against including the Illiana. Metra and Pace did not.

Pace explained its position at the meeting, and it still goes against their mission of providing bus service to suburban residents. Richard Kwasneski represents the agency on the committee and is a Pace board member, but he also heads the Joliet Arsenal Development Authority, a state agency that promotes the development around the former Joliet arsenal, a state-owned property adjacent to the proposed Illiana Tollway. He said that the region needs to show private investors it’s serious about attracting their investment. “I think if we send the wrong message out there we’re not going to get the investments necessary,” he said, adding “I still believe these other projects are important.”

I am still perplexed by Metra’s vote to support the plan. In a statement today, Active Trans said that Metra is “run by politics” and that if Metra and Pace had stood up for their riders, the motion to include Illiana would have failed. “The Illiana Expressway is a train wreck for transit, and Metra and Pace voted for it anyway,” it said.

  • Chicagio

    What likelihood of a 3rd party lawsuit delaying, if not defeating the Illiana?

    The EIS has got to take at least several months if not the better part of a year to complete. Quinn is wildly unpopular (seriously, he’s only like 18 points higher than Blago, must have been the hair) but it doesn’t look like he’ll face a real primary challenge. So has anyone asked the prospective Republican nominees for governor what their opinion on the Illiana is? It seems like whoever is elected next November will probably have an opportunity to stop this project.

    And just to rant… where are all those rural conservatives complaining about massive government spending when you need them? I can’t imagine the Will, Kane, McHenry county commissioners are democrats, are they?

  • Brian

    Thank god- we need this road! Oh wait- you’re answer is probably to spend money building bike lanes. Not getting truck traffic moving!

  • This makes it even more imperative to keep a very close eye on IDOTs involvement in the Lake Shore Drive redesign/reconstruction. I’m afraid they’re not at all in tune with the realities of designing transportation for cities and they’re primary interest is roadway capacity increases for cars, no matter the cost. Unfortunately I don’t know anyone on the task forces related to transportation.

  • Dear god, I didn’t think about this…

  • BlueFairlane

    Modern conservatism’s reluctance to embrace big government usually focuses more on defunding things they see as unnecessary, like education or public health. A road project, though, is all about jobs, which in their minds is government’s only purpose. Browsing through the vaguely-written web sites of the potential Republican candidates seems to support this. I doubt you’ll find much hope for stopping the Illiana among that bunch.

  • Gary Toth

    Wow… IDOT actually said land use is not their business? And that their investments are not driving land use? ? Boy do they have their head in the sand.

    5 years ago, the National Highway Institute – the training arm of USDOT – launched their new Integrating Transportation and Land Use course in Chicago. I know, I was one of the instructors. It was hosted by CMAP, the first agency in the country created by the merger of a Transportation Department and a Planning Authority. Based on IDOT’s myopic remarks, it appears that the training may as well have been held in Tibet.

    Those of you interested in leading IDOT out of the Dark Ages should point them to precedents for DOTs understanding that land use IS their business in Utah, Maine, Pennsylvania, NJ, New Hampshire and California. You should also enlighten them to recent examples of big Highway projects in Vermont and New Hampshire being shut down by Federal Courts because the DOTs ignored the land use impacts that they said “they weren’t driving”.

  • Gary Toth

    See my comment in the earlier post. The last two law suits against DOT mega investments in high speed freeways that ignored land use, were overturned in federal court. In Vermont, the court decision led to the death of the Vt Agency of Transportation’s decades long effort to build a circumferential freeway around Burlington. In NH, it stalled the widening of I-93. If you want more information, email me at gtoth@pps.org.

  • Chicagio

    In those instances that you refer to, who brought those lawsuits against the state?

  • Chicagio

    I’m not as worried about LSD. Despite it being IDOT’s roadway (right?) I think city hall clout will matter more, in my opinion. As long as we continue to have a forward thinking mayor (as far as transpo is concerned) I think we’ll be okay.

  • Chicagio

    Still, I think someone should ask the republican candidates about illiana’s projected risk to Illinois taxpayers. (Per the cmap report)

  • BlueFairlane

    Oh, I agree somebody should try to get them to say explicitly where they stand. I’d be shocked if any of them gave you an answer you liked.

  • Adam Herstein

    Bike lanes are far cheaper than a brand new highway to nowhere.

  • Anonymous

    Questions:

    – This seemed to come out if nowhere in theist couple of weeks. Was this stealth or was thus just bit being talked about?

    – What are the behind-the-scenes politics here? Who stands to gain?

    – why would transit agencies vote for this? How is it in their interests?

  • Anonymous

    What can we do now? Should we all be contacting our state reps?

  • Yes, IDOT said that. They also say a lot of other stupid things and give many non-answers to the comments in that Tier 2 scoping report.

    IDOT and CMAP work together a lot. Earlier this year CMAP hosted a seminar for their engineers to teach them about Context Sensitive Solutions and the new guide book created by Congress for New Urbanism and Institute of Transportation Engineers, Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach.

    Thanks for listing those examples.

  • 1. No. I’ve been reporting on it since August and some mainstream media have been reporting on it since 2012.

    2. Governor Quinn maintains his campaign promise to create jobs, but this project will create the same number of temporary construction jobs as any multi-billion dollar infrastructure project, and only 940 jobs in the next 40 years.

    3. It’s in transit agencies’ interest to remain on IDOT’s good side because IDOT has the authority (er, power) to not pay the transit agencies’ invoices on time.

  • Yes, you should be contacting your state reps and ask them to be on the lookout for a financing package from IDOT about the Illiana Tollway that needs the legislature’s approval.

  • Ken

    Well, shame on me then for not paying sufficient attention. I am sure my interest would have made the difference. :-)

    Not sure I understand (3). What is IDOT paying the agencies for? Whatever it is, if it is a source of conflict of interest, should we be lobbying our legislators to change this? It’s pathetic to have transit agencies supporting road-building projects.

  • I should have been clearer. Federal funding for transit agencies’ capital projects (bus and train purchases, station construction, renovations, etc.) comes via IDOT.

    IDOT delayed passing along funding for CDOT in 2012, and has delayed passing along funding for CMAP in 2007 and 2013.

  • hello

    This
    http://usa.streetsblog.org/2013/10/23/tifia-backed-privately-operated-texas-toll-road-flirts-with-default/#more-145858

    I just forwarded this to all my state reps/senator/governor in hopes (however little) that this Illiana thing can be stopped.

    If anyone has SunTimes or Tribune connections, see if they can pick it up and right some more negative editorials against the Illiana.

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