The Illiana Tollway, a joint proposal by the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation to build a 47-mile highway through thinly populated farmland about 40 miles south of Chicago, rolled over another hurdle yesterday when the Federal Highway Administration approved the project’s environmental impact study. FHWA’s approval allows IDOT and InDOT to proceed with soliciting bids for the highway.
In a press release, IDOT called the FHWA’s “record of decision” an endorsement of the project and process. IDOT, of course, is reading too much into this: FHWA didn’t endorse the project by awarding it a huge grant. Instead, FHWA merely acknowledged that the Illiana meets the federal government’s minimum justification standard for highways. Even though the Illiana might meet that bare minimum, the FHWA isn’t putting its own money on the line. Rather, FHWA has simply said that Illinois is now free to waste its own money on the project.
This monstrous boondoggle – one of the most wasteful road projects in the entire country – surely won’t be stopped by IDOT or by any agency, like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, dependent on IDOT. The federal government’s involvement concluded with the EIS review, so it’s now out of the picture. It’s up to governor-elect Bruce Rauner to put an an end to this travesty.
Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently told the Better Government Association that Rauner “has the authority to shelve [Illiana]. He doesn’t have to ask anyone.” Schlickman added that, because the Illiana is “moving so rapidly,” Rauner will need to act quickly and decisively. IDOT is just weeks, or months, away from formally issuing a Request for Proposals to its short list of bidders, and award contracts soon afterwards.
Rauner told the Tribune’s editorial board in September that he didn’t know if the Illiana should be built, and that he’d “have to see the studies” before making that decision. In the past, he’s hedged on the issue – both saying that the project “may have the potential to be an economic development engine,” but also that IDOT’s public-private partnership shouldn’t leave taxpayers “holding the bag.”
If Rauner does take a close look at the studies, he’ll find that the Illiana’s economic development “potential” lies entirely in Indiana, and that the state’s $1.3 billion would create just 940 jobs through 2040. The editorial board directly asked Rauner if he had seen the studies, and wrote then that “there is no upside” to the road.