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MPC: Funding the Illiana Expressway Would Be a Big Mistake

4:48 PM CDT on September 5, 2013

The Metropolitan Planning Council, a non-profit promoting economic development strategies for Chicagoland, has come out strongly against the Illiana Expressway, a 47-mile highway the Illinois Department of Transportation has proposed for the rural communities of southern Will County and northwestern Indiana. MPC released a statement yesterday highlighting numerous shortcomings in IDOT's proposal, including vague financing plans and the overall failure to address the region's transportation needs.

As Streetsblog reported, IDOT needs a vote of approval from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to spend money on the Illiana, which was not included on the list of "fiscally constrained projects" in the GO TO 2040 regional plan.

Making its case against the project, MPC cites the uncertain cost to taxpayers of building and maintaining the road and criticizes the kind of public-private partnership that IDOT is exploring, called an "availability payment":

A likely P3 scenario would leverage an availability payment, through which a private company agrees to finance capital costs in exchange for guaranteed payments from the public sector over a defined period. This model puts the public sector at risk; if collected toll revenues fall below expectations, the government must find a way to pay the financing company its guaranteed annual payment.

To jumpstart construction, taxpayers "will likely need to provide more than two-thirds of Illinois' share of the capital costs of the Illiana," according to CMAP's analysis. If the Illiana gobbles up those public funds, it could jeopardize funding for six other projects in the GO TO 2040 plan, MPC warns. Those six projects are: extending the CTA Red Line to 130th Street; extending IL-53 as a boulevard; constructing the West Loop Transportation Center; building the I-294/I-57 Interchange; taking Elgin-O’Hare Expressway to O'Hare and building West O’Hare Bypass; and now building the Circle Interchange.

Failed financing for rural toll roads

MPC went so far as to find eight projects in GO TO 2040 that, added together, would equal the $950 million in public and private dollars that IDOT wants to devote to the Illiana. These included transit extension and road widening projects like adding lanes to Eisenhower and extending the Metra Electric into Will County, close to where the Illiana would be.

IDOT is mounting a campaign for the highway, publishing a brochure [PDF] in response to CMAP's skeptical report on the project.

In the brochure IDOT purports to offer "a close look at the Illiana Facts." For example, IDOT says the project is "strongly supported by stakeholders across the study area." That's to be expected when both CMAP and IDOT project more jobs for those areas, at the expense of already-urbanized areas surrounding Chicago. But according to MPC's analysis of IDOT's studies, only 940 net new jobs would be created in the region, while jobs would shift from Cook County and nearby counties to Indiana. IDOT's own analysis, MPC writes, shows the Chicago region losing 5,000 jobs and 7,000 people with a "rough equivalent" number relocating to Indiana. Is this how IDOT should be allocating scarce transportation dollars?

The brochure says the Illiana Expressway "would be a strong trucking corridor." Again, this provides no regional context. MPC notes that, according to IDOT's own forecast: "[the] Illiana would do little to relieve congestion, reducing vehicle hours of travel in...areas south of I-80...by just 1.08 percent and reducing regional truck hours by less than 1.0 percent." IDOT's project studies show that very little truck traffic actually terminates in Indiana and is instead headed to Michigan and Ohio, north of the Illiana corridor. These truckers would scarcely save any time using the new highway, even when traffic on it is completely free-flowing.

IDOT has also complained to CMAP [PDF] that if the regional agency doesn't vote to allow the project, then $40 million in planning would be lost. But that's the nature of planning: You study whether or not something is worth building, and how it would be built. If, in the end, it's not worth building, then the planning was still worthwhile because it prevented the much larger expense of building an unjustifiable major highway.

On October 9, members of three CMAP committees and the executive board will vote on the Illiana project. Will they again let IDOT muscle in a costly project with weak regional benefits, pushing other priorities out of the way?

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