How IDOT’s Bogus Job Creation Claims Fed the Campaign for the Illiana

An email from Will County Center for Economic Development to members...

The Illinois Department of Transportation made its case for the Illiana tollway proposal by disseminating half truths and outright lies. At a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning committee meeting in October where members voted 10-8 in favor of the 47-mile highway, supporters repeatedly referred to IDOT’s claim that the project would create 28,000 jobs. But that number was a lie: The project is in fact projected to create only 940 long-term jobs.

Many of the public comments in support of the Illiana Tollway were explicitly based on talking points in a letter distributed by the Will County Center for Economic Development, which mirrored statements in IDOT mailings.

IDOT published a “fact sheet” [PDF] in August, including the claim that the new highway would create “9,000 short-term jobs [and] 28,000 long-term jobs” (by 2043). It wasn’t until more than a month later that IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider disclosed to Crain’s reporter Greg Hinz that those 28,000 jobs were actually “job-years,” denoting only 940 long-term jobs.

The factsheet also stated that CMAP agreed with IDOT’s analysis that the Illiana “would not have a significant impact upon the urbanization of the region,” meaning that it wouldn’t cause sprawl. That is technically true (though some environmental groups disagree) but also very deceptive, because it omits the key point in CMAP’s opposition. All along, CMAP has said that the Illiana is incompatible with the GO TO 2040 regional plan because the project does not invest in already urbanized areas.

In any case, IDOT seems to contradict itself in the next line of the factsheet, where it says that the Illiana, “will support economic growth for the local communities and be a backbone for land and spatial development.” Since the road will be in southern Will County, that means development in rural, greenfield areas — a.k.a. sprawl.

Almost a third of the 169 letters to CMAP supporting the Illiana drew verbatim from the Will County Center for Economic Development letter rehashing IDOT’s August factsheet. Many letters from municipal leaders and village boards also noted the false 28,000 jobs figured propagated by IDOT and the CED.

...that was copied verbatim by Gallagher Asphalt and dozens of other Illiana supporters.

Companies like Gallagher Asphalt sent multiple letters, on official letterhead and from at least 10 staff email accounts, with “facts” copied and pasted from CED’s document. These and other letters bloated the number of comments in favor of the tollway. Even so, comments against the project outnumbered them four to one.

It’s important for people who support sound regional planning and spending infrastructure funding where it benefits the most people to closely watchdog IDOT’s messaging. Organizations like Metropolitan Planning Council, Active Transportation Alliance, and Openlands stepped up, warning the region that this project is wrong for Chicagoland, and that IDOT was pushing it to the detriment of more worthwhile projects in GO TO 2040. However, the politicized project was also backed by state legislators who came to speak in support of the project and county executives who voted in support — all of whom repeated IDOT’s “so many jobs!” message.

This is one of three parts in a series of concluding thoughts about the battle to keep scarce regional transportation funds from going to the Illiana Expressway. Parts two and three will discuss project financing and the reaction from Hoosiers, respectively. 

  • Chicagio

    Trust me, i hate the Illiana as much as anyone but, my gut is that none of these stats or campaigns (for or against) really mattered. The votes went along with each party’s political interest. Even though the illiana flies right in the face of Metra and Pace’s supposed purpose, their “constituency” is in the suburbs so they went suburbs. Collar counties voted for it to preserve their power as a block even though several of these counties will suffer job loss because of the tollway.

    This is why i disagreed with the statements made during the final voting session that the process demonstrated how important regional planning was. The fact that the decision ended up being entirely political shows how useless regional planning is in Illinois. I have nothing but sympathy for the talented staff at CMAP who saw much of their fine work subverted with one vote. I hate to sound so cynical but it doesn’t seem like much planning can take place beyond the street level.

  • Think streetsblog also showed that Metra and Pace’s funding is controlled (partly?) by IDOT. Clearly IDOT wants this project, for one interest or another, and perhaps Metra and Pace felt the need to appease IDOT lest IDOT exact revenge on them. Even more politics meddling in the process.

  • Chicagio

    You’re absolutely right; there was plenty of quid pro quo going around. The other counties had to vote for it otherwise pet projects, like the 53 north extension, don’t get the same support.

  • Anonymous

    Everyone knows public works projects economic benefits are rather bogus. When a new stadium is built they project jobs created as if jobs were never there to begin with. They count dollars spent as if that dollar would never be spent anywhere else in the market place. Kind of reminds me how everyone is so dazzled by the $5.8 billion dollars in “econcomic development” that the Cleveland BRT supposedly spawned, when the truth of the matter is they had to go back to the year 2000 to count in all projects from Downtown to the end of the line despite the fact that the BRT didn’t run until the year 2008.

    I’m sure only jobs created by the Ashland BRT will be counted, but those lost by businesses that will fold or move won’t be counted.

  • CL

    Wow, that’s a huge difference. I wonder if anyone really believed it would create 28,000 long-term jobs though — that’s roughly the population of the town that I come from. Unless they were going to pay people to line the road in orange vests instead of planting cones, I don’t know what all of those people would even do.

    940 jobs is still a good thing, but those people could be put to work building something useful. I admit, though, that sometimes thinking about jobs comforts me when I’m stuck in traffic due to road construction. My first thought is “why are they doing this, it’s ruining my day” and then I remember that at least it means people are working…

  • Anonymous

    Welcome to the world of major capital project development in a landscape shaped by a regulatory and financing framework that is designed to really do only one thing well, irrespective of whether it is the best thing to do and absent any accountability for delivering projected benefits, let alone responsibility for accurately calculating and presenting claimed benefits in the first place:

    Increase road capacity.

  • Anonymous

    “My gut is that none of these stats or campaigns (for or against) really mattered.”

    The stats only matter in the context of leaping a hurdle required to spend the money. Thus, there’s motive to conjure benefits through an insidious combination of public disinformation and grade school statistical methods.

    The resulting patchwork of half-truths, misrepresentations, and shockingly apparent statistical errors is then paraded about like Frankenstein’s monster, but without the associated public horror.

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