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Beyond Chicagoland

Quinn Tying State’s Hands to Preempt Potential Illiana Roadblocks

12:10 PM CDT on May 14, 2014

illiana fact sheet about proposed legislation
The fact sheet Quinn distributed to Illinois lawmakers and obtained by Crain's and Capitol Fax.

Governor Pat Quinn is doing everything he can to ensure that the Illiana Tollway will be built, no matter what. The Illinois General Assembly gave the state permission in 2010 to pursue a public-private partnership with a private company to build and operate the tollway, but now Quinn has proposed new legislation that gives the tollway new special privileges.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is already committing at least $250 million in taxpayer money for the multi-billion dollar tollway, which will pave over 47 miles of farmland in Illinois and Indiana. The new legislation will make sure that the Illiana will be first in line for funds, ahead of all other state-supported transportation projects -- even those that IDOT has deemed urgent.

The Illinois Department of Transportation's own studies say that 43 percent of potential customers would avoid the road, and thus the road will serve fewer daily drivers than Irving Park Road in Chicago. However, as Crain's reports, IDOT insists that toll revenues will pay for the highway's construction by 2040, at which time the highway will "allow IDOT to invest excess toll revenue on other transportation projects."

The new legislation also ties the state's hands should something go wrong with the operator, since it would send any contract disputes to private arbitrators rather than the state's own Court of Claims. The upshot for the private operator is that their financial and legal risk will be minimal.

The legislation's fact sheet says that, should the bill pass, Illinois' state transportation funds would go first to existing debt obligations, then to the Illiana operator, and only then (if any is remaining) to IDOT's priorities, like repaving roads or purchasing new transit buses. Senator Matt Murphy of Palatine told Crain's: "Irregardless of where your project is in the pipeline, this would knock it back one. The more we learn about this proposed public/private partnership, the more questions it raises."

The existing statute says "the agreements should be accountable to the People of Illinois through a comprehensive system of oversight, regulation, auditing, and reporting," but the new legislation cuts accountability by sending disputes to binding arbitration. Murphy said he didn't know of another situation in which the state "ceded its right to go to court," and that he would try to change the bill.

Additionally, the existing law says that IDOT must select two top bidders and receive approval of these bidders from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability and the Procurement Policy Board. The new legislation, perhaps worrying that there might only be one bidder, says IDOT would only need to forward one bidder to those boards.

The fact sheet also outlined changes to the financing structure that seem to further increase taxpayers' liability. A year's worth of payments to the operator would be paid in the first eight months, potentially putting the state on the hook for making loans for the four months of toll revenue it hasn't collected.

America has seen countless bad toll road deals lately, but the Illiana really takes the cake: It generates few permanent jobs, it's contrary to regional needs, it will damage nationally significant habitat, it will undoubtedly cost a fortune, it just paves the way for sprawl in Indiana -- and yet it's being mollycoddled by Illinois' elected leaders.

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