CMAP Board, Voting Down Illiana, Tells How IDOT Is Witholding Funds

CMAP board chair Gerald Bennett and CMAP CEO Randy Blankenhorn
CMAP board chair Gerald Bennett and CMAP CEO Randy Blankenhorn speaking to press after the vote.

After discussion that was heated at times, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning board voted ten to four yesterday against including the Illiana Tollway as a fiscally constrained project in the GO TO 2040 regional plan. This advisory vote precedes the MPO policy committee’s deciding vote, which was supposed to take place yesterday, but was pushed back to Thursday, October 17 by Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider. Presumably, this was done to give the state more time to rally support for this 47-mile tollway, which would run south of the urbanized metro region, serving relatively few drivers in the foreseeable future. The project would cost an estimated $2.75 billion, but it’s estimated to create only 940 new jobs over the next 40 years, and it would facilitate jobs being moved out of Illinois and into Indiana.

Will the MPO policy committee – with representatives from CDOT, CTA, Metra, Pace, and RTA, all of whom voted for the project or abstained from voting in last week’s transportation commitee meeting – vote against the highway?

That wouldn’t necessarily kill the project, as both board chair Gerald Bennett, Palos Hills mayor, and CMAP Executive Director Randy Blankenhorn acknowledged in a rare post-meeting press briefing. “You can never kill a plan,” Blankenhorn said, adding that he wants IDOT to finish the project’s engineering because CMAP is updating the GO TO 2040 plan and the organization wants to know how the Illiana fits in. Bennett mentioned that the Central-Narragansett project, which would move traffic over a railyard near Midway airport, has been proposed for decades and planning continues to this day.

During the meeting Bennett passionately argued for voting against the project because he said he was sick of CMAP being part of political decisions. He noted that the state has been pressuring the board to approve the Illiana and that IDOT has been delaying federal funds necessary to keep CMAP afloat. “IDOT did this five years ago,” Bennet explained, “when CMAP was in a fiscal crisis and the former governor [Blagojevich] wanted three voting seats but then five months later he backed down.”

Blankenhorn said IDOT currently owes CMAP $2.2 million, and this is making it difficult for the planning agency to pay its bills to their small business vendors. Blankenhorn told the standing room only audience that when CMAP asked IDOT why the funding was delayed, the state told them CMAP had a clean audit, but it was auditing a downstate metropolitan planning agency and was implementing “new controls”. This was the same excuse IDOT gave last time it withheld CMAP’s funds, five or six years ago, added Bennett. A letter CMAP sent to the Federal Highway Administration in September complained about the $2.2 million in unpaid invoices, and noted that other reimbursement checks were delayed up to 52 days. Federal law requires that the state release these funds within 15 days.

I look forward to a future where IDOT doesn’t negatively impact transportation in the Chicago region. Let’s hope that next week local leaders launch a new era where decisions about projects are based on their potential to improve regional transportation, not due to political pressure, by voting against the Illiana.

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