The Only Problem the Illiana Solves Is a Political One

CTA Bus #21

While the state showers money on the useless Illiana Tollway, state jurisdiction roads like Cermak and Archer remain a dysfunctional, dangerous mess. Photo: Joseph Palmer

The Illiana Tollway is a solution in search of a problem, and the Illinois DOT’s final document in preparation to receive federal approval to build the tollway is a case study in backwards transportation planning. IDOT’s playbook went like this: Design a new road, have consultants review traffic patterns on existing roads to find issues to underpin the rationale for the new road, then rally political support for the road around those issues.

With the release of IDOT’s “Tier 2 Environmental Impact Statement” to the feds, we can see the agency tell the feds that a four-lane, 47-mile long tolled highway will solve problems that will spring up only because of the construction of the same highway.

IDOT had already completed the route and an environmental impact study of the Illiana when the agency convinced the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s MPO Policy Committee to approve the project, even though that vote went against the intent of the GO TO 2040 regional plan, which CMAP itself had crafted in collaboration with hundreds of municipalities and dozens of partner organizations.

CMAP staff and its board – but not Metra and Pace – all rejected the Illiana because the proposed road was in conflict with a principle tenet in GO TO 2040: Population and job growth should be encouraged in already developed areas alongside public infrastructure investments in these areas. The Illiana Tollway takes the region in precisely the opposite direction — building new infrastructure where very few people live, then spurring population and job growth in that previously undeveloped area.

Now that IDOT has designed the road, it has to tell the federal government why the Illiana is the best solution for a problem. This is the point when IDOT finally devises the problem, and does so in a way that the Illiana Tollway becomes the only reasonable solution.

The problem statement in the Tier 2 EIS says that new growth along the proposed project corridor will lead to congestion, so a new road, the Illiana Tollway, is needed to alleviate it. This would be the same new road that IDOT’s consultants say a huge number of people in the area will avoid because of the tolls that will likely be charged while other highways remain free.

In another contrived reason to build the highway, the report says there are only 141 east-west miles of “principal arterial roads” in the study area (the Illiana Tollway would add 47 more). But if IDOT actually devoted resources to address the lack of transportation connections, the Illiana, which is projected to have fewer users in 2040 than Chicago’s Irving Park Road does today, would not be in line for up to $500 million of taxpayer dollars. Instead, we’d see public funds go toward bringing back demolished ‘L’ lines, fixing dilapidated Metra stations, and canceled bus routes.

The report says that because of the lack of a wide east-west road, people must drive north to I-80, which “adds economic cost, delay, congestion, [and] reduced job accessibility…” So, has IDOT heard of Chicago and its densely populated suburbs? Our underfunded transit agencies, inadequate rail and bus routes, and dangerous streets for walking and biking inhibit economic growth and limit transportation options, and prevent equitable access to jobs.

If we stick to the regional plan that prioritizes public investments in already developed areas, the population and job growth that IDOT predicts in its Illiana justification won’t materialize. But the Illiana Tollway only exists to solve a political problem – the purported disinvestment in the southern areas of Chicagoland – and as long as the state uses transportation spending for political ends, good regional planning will lose.

IDOT is accepting comments on the Tier 2 Environmental Impact Statement until March 10. Read chapter three, which discusses the damage to farmland, existing communities, and flora and fauna.