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.
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.