Rauner Takes a Second, Hopefully Final, Step to Kill the Illiana

MPC 2014 Annual Luncheon
Governor Rauner and IDOT have removed the Illiana from the state’s current infrastructure plan. Photo: MPC

Yesterday, Governor Bruce Rauner drove a second stake into the heart of the Illiana Tollway, a sprawl-inducing highway proposed for rural Illinois and Indiana, just south of metropolitan Chicago. Rauner’s office issued a press release slamming a new state budget passed by Democratic leaders as fiscally irresponsible. In response to the budget, the Republican governor announced he will cut many state programs, including the Illiana. The release states:

In light of the state’s current fiscal crisis and a lack of sufficient capital resources, the Illiana Expressway will not move forward at this time. As a result, the Illinois Department of Transportation will remove the project from its current multi-year plan. It is the determination of IDOT that the project costs exceed currently available resources. The Department will begin the process of suspending all existing project contracts and procurements.

The Chicago Tribune wrote that the cuts are Rauner’s strategy to force House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton to renegotiate the budget. However, it’s unlikely that the governor’s plan to stop the Illiana will be an effective bargaining chip.

The Illiana was spearheaded by former governor Pat Quinn, who was fighting for his political life at the time. Desperate to win votes, he was so focused on building the highway that he was willing to gamble more than $500 million in future taxpayer dollars on the boondoggle.

Most of the other politicians who pushed hard for the tollway were legislators whose districts it would have run through, as well as South Side representatives who hoped the project would create jobs for their constituents. Many other politicians understood that the road would siphon industry and residents from the rest of the region, and the resulting sprawl would be a drag on the local economy.

Rauner drove the first stake into the Illiana in January, when he froze non-essential highway spending. While no infrastructure project can ever truly die, with this recent move, the governor has taken the tollway off IDOT’s current to-do list. However, the tollway currently remains on a list of potential transportation projects maintained by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region’s metropolitan planning organization.

In 2013, Quinn strong-armed the Illiana onto that roster. CMAP’s board voted against including the tollway on the list. However, then-IDOT secretary Ann Schneider garnered the necessary votes at multiple meetings of CMAP’s Policy Committee to move the project to the high-priority list.

Some of the votes came from representatives of Metra and Pace, voting against their own interest by supporting a highway that would divert transportation funding from transit. The reps were apparently worried that if their agencies didn’t vote for Quinn’s pet project, they would jeopardize their agency’s budgets.

Randy Blankenhorn, the former CMAP head who now runs IDOT, was surely instrumental in convincing Rauner to kill the Illiana. The planning agency’s analysis found that the Illiana would have had few benefits as a transportation corridor, and had the potential to be financially disastrous.

A number of local residents and organizations also helped stop the Illiana. Farmers whose land would have been destroyed by the project banded together and made the long drive downtown to attend every hearing and speak out against the tollway.

The Metropolitan Planning Council noted that, based on IDOT’s own research, the Illiana would funnel Illinois jobs and residents to Indiana. To add insult to injury, Illinois taxpayers would be on the hook for the life of the project. The private concessionaire selected to build and operate the Illiana would receive availability payments guaranteeing them minimum earnings. Therefore, if toll revenue came up short, taxpayers would be forced to cough up the rest.

Quinn even tried to pass legislation to make the Illiana more attractive to potential concessionaires by prioritizing payments to the tollway operator above spending for any other infrastructure project, aside from existing obligations. Fortunately, that law didn’t pass.

The environmental groups Openlands, Sierra Club, and Midewin Heritage Association sued the Federal Highway Administration and IDOT to stop the project. The Environmental Law and Policy Center also filed a lawsuit, arguing that, according to state law, only the CMAP board had the authority to approve the Illiana — which it didn’t — not the MPO Policy Committee.

Rauner has generally been awful on transportation — his proposed 2016 budget calls for $193 million in statewide cuts to transit, but beefs up road funding. However, he deserves credit for doing the financially responsible thing by deleting the Illiana from the state’s plans.

  • undercover epicurean

    Unfortunately, I think this move has more to do with politics than sound transportation planning.

  • BlueFairlane

    This is Rauner’s stopped-clock moment.

  • Mcass777

    You got me.
    What is a stopped clocked moment? I can’t find it anywhere.

  • BlueFairlane

    My take on the old saying that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. This doesn’t work so well in the digital era.

  • Kevin M

    So, did Rauner’s announcement also mention the Amtrak expansions to Quad Cities and Rockford?

    We’re so, so screwed when it comes to transportation in America, and certainly, in Illinois. We can’t even agree to build a relatively slow diesal-driven passenger train line between our State’s largest metropolitan areas.

  • I think you’re right. It’s a bargaining chip to get Democrats to collaborate on a budget.

    There’s an important meeting next week at CMAP where they could reverse their approval of the Illiana.

    The federal government could also cancel their approval of the environmental impact study.

  • Mcass777

    :)

  • Mcass777

    Why do the democrats (or anyone) want this??

  • I thought you might be comparing him to a college basketball coach or something.

  • neroden

    Win-win for Madigan — he passes his budget and rejects Rauner, and in response Rauner helps him out by getting rid of the Iliana insanity.

  • neroden

    I don’t think the Democrats want this. In which case it isn’t much of a bargaining chip, is it?

  • R.A. Stewart

    It may be not so much a chip in itself, but something that needs to stay with the chips for now to avoid political embarrassment. Pulling the Illiana out of the hostage pool while the poor and disabled, Amtrak and local transit, the state’s universities, parks, and recreation areas, and municipalities remain in would reinforce too vividly the worst narratives about Republicans, and while Rauner may be a Scott Walker wannabe, I don’t think he wants to cast himself as Illinois’ Dick Cheney. Especially not when his own party’s local propaganda office, a.k.a. the Tribune, has been calling out the project for the boondoggle it is.

    All of that said, I will not be at all surprised to see it rise from its unquiet grave once the current budget drama has been played out.

  • Tom Hagglund

    U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso today put the final nail in the coffin of the Illiana. Let’s hope the dead tollway idea isn’t a reanimating zombie, popping back up somewhere down the line.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-illiana-court-decision-met-20150616-story.html

  • JoJo MoMo

    Honestly its a great move for growth in the state,have any of you ever commute from anywhere close in this area(Illiana) to Chicago? or one of the north west suburbs .I have for 16+ years
    The area that this would be built has expanded and grown in population and would not only help the growth in the area but the also aide in the new business that it’s slowly bringing in
    The 355 expansion did wonders this one will as well