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Illiana Forced Into CMAP Regional Plan By Springfield, Suburban Reps

CMAP's MPO Policy committee
The MPO Policy Committee listened to a panel of speakers testify this morning. Photo: Steven Vance

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's MPO Policy committee today approved the Illiana Tollway, among other projects, as part of GO TO 2040, which the agency calls "the comprehensive regional plan... for sustainable prosperity through mid-century and beyond."

Committee members representing Chicago, Cook County, and McHenry County, which together are home to almost two-thirds of Chicago area residents, voted twice against adding the Illiana to the plan. However, they were overruled by representatives from other suburbs and from state agencies. The committee voted twice today: first on a motion to specifically exclude the Illiana from a larger package of GO TO 2040 updates, which failed 10-8 with one abstention, followed by a vote to adopt the update with the Illiana, which passed 12-6 with one abstention.

If the Illiana gets first dibs on state funding, as Governor Pat Quinn and IDOT intend, then those same suburbs will see at least $500 million robbed from the funds that pay for their own infrastructure projects.

Pace continued to stick it to its riders, with its representative supporting the Illiana in both votes. Metra's representative abstained from voting on both motions, although its vote would not have swung either result. Metra frequently uses IDOT capital funds to purchase new equipment -- but, next year, it intends to stick its riders with that bill, hiking fares by 11 to 19 percent.

Erica Borggren, the acting secretary at the Illinois Department of Transportation, began the meeting by introducing herself as an expert in being dropped into unfamiliar situations, like the debate over the tollway. She previously served in the military, but has no prior experience evaluating transportation improvements.

Plan proponents testified to the board that heavy truck traffic, and occasional delays to funeral processions, necessitate the billion-dollar boondoggle. These claims are contrary to the Illinois Department of Transportation's own studies, which say that high tolls will dissuade truckers and other motorists from using the tollway, so local congestion would be reduced by only one percent.

Other familiar faces spoke against the road. Stacey Meyers from Openlands pointed out that even the pro-industry newsletter Toll Roads News has called the Illiana "a sure fiasco" and "self-evidently a lemon project whose sour aftertaste is certain to discredit tolling and the toll industry."

CMAP board member Elliott Hartstein, as he did yesterday, warned other committee members and Illinois residents that the Illiana stands on extremely shaky financial footing. He related the financial gamble of building the Illiana to the state's long debates over expanding gambling.

"We have a situation," Hartstein warned, "where the deck is stacked in favor of the private vendor." This project, he said, would cost the state money -- rather than bring in money, like a new casino might. The private vendor, yet to be selected, would receive both all of the toll revenues, plus state-guaranteed availability payments when those toll revenues inevitably don't provide enough profit.

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

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