Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday September 30th, 2014, 1:59pm

Public Interest Group Urges Against 'Wasteful Spending' On Illiana Expressway

An Illinois public interest organization is raising concerns about the proposed Illiana Expressway, saying the privatized toll road that would serve mainly as a trucking corridor "may charge tolls too high to attract trucks, and will likely require hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies."

The Illiana Expressway, a public-private partnership endeavor, is cited as one of 11 highway "boondoggles" across the country in a new report by the Illinois PIRG Education Fund, which is calling on "decision makers to reprioritize scarce transportation dollars to other projects."

The report highlights the proposed 47-mile Illiana tollway, which would connect I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana, as an example of "wasteful highway spending based on its outdated assumptions of ever-increasing driving."

"The Illiana Expressway is based on the presumption that traffic in the 18 county region affected by the road will increase by .92 percent annually between 2010 and 2040, as measured in total vehicle miles traveled (VMT)," the Illinois PIRG Education Fund noted. "However, that is more than double the annual rate of increase from 2001 and 2010 (.42 percent). And, since 2010, VMT in the region has been down .49 percent annually."

The proposed tollway, which would be used primarily as a trucking corridor in the bi-state region, would reportedly provide local and regional congestion relief.

Although the "financing of the road is premised on strong and growing toll proceeds," the report argues that "tolling will reduce the number of drivers using the road -- and therefore reduce the road's potential benefit to the transportation system."

"At even the lowest level of toll considered by the proposal, more than half the tractor-trailer trucks that would use the road if it were free are expected to avoid it; at the highest considered toll, more than 80 percent will use other roads instead," the report reads.

The bi-state toll road is expected to cost between $1.3 billion to $2.8 billion, "if related work on connecting roads is included," according to the Illinois PIRG Education Fund. The group estimates that Illinois taxpayers would have to cover between $690 million to $1.35 billion of the project's costs.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Policy Committee, which under federal law has to approve significant transportation projects, voted 11-8 last October to add the Illiana Corridor project to the list of priorities in the Go To 2040 Plan. Including the project in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's (CMAP) Go To 2040 comprehensive regional plan makes it eligible for federal funding. 

Last year's decision by the policy committee came just days after CMAP's board voted against including the Illiana Corridor in the Go To 2040 plan, saying the proposed project is a considerable financial risk to the state. Among other concerns, CMAP's analysis found that the project would likely require as much as $1.1 billion in public finances over a 35-year period. CMAP has warned that the Illiana's implementation could come at the expense of existing projects in the comprehensive regional plan.

CMAP's board and the MPO Policy Committee will separately consider the draft Go To 2040 Plan, which includes the Illiana project, at their respective meetings on October 8 and October 9.

Supporters of the expressway, including Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL,2) and others, say the project would be a win for transportation, economic development and jobs in the Southland region and the state.

"Construction of the Illiana Expressway, in tandem with the South Suburban Airport, will create the infrastructure necessary for the Chicago Southland to grow and prosper into the 21st Century," Kelly said in a statement to Progress Illinois on Tuesday. "The Metropolitan Planning Organization has the foresight to realize that expanding the region's transportation network is key to enhancing Illinois' standing in the global economy."

The governor's press office did not return a request for comment on this story by deadline. But Quinn has previously stated that the Illiana "regional highway will not only serve the largest and fastest growing areas in Illinois, it will have a long-term economic impact of more than $4 billion in the region."

The project is expected to create more than 9,000 construction jobs and 28,000 long-term jobs, Quinn's office has said.

But environmentalists, public transportation advocates and other opponents of the expressway argue that the project would consume funds that could otherwise be used for more pressing transportation needs.

"Illinois should 'fix it first' by prioritizing road funds to repair the potholed roads, troubled bridges and aging highways that people do use instead of building costly new roads to nowhere, like the proposed Illiana Tollway, driven by political clout," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "Illinois and other Midwest states should also prioritize investments to improve modern higher-speed passenger rail and better public transit service that efficiently meets the growing public travel demands."

Abe Scarr, director of the Illinois PIRG Education Fund, noted that Illinois has 2,275 "structurally deficient" bridges, according to the Federal Highway Administration's National Bridge Inventory from 2013.

"Why should Illinois prioritize spending on this highly-questionable highway expansion while more than 2,000 bridges remain structurally deficient and other more deserving projects are ignored," he asked.

Read Progress Illinois' past coverage of the debate surrounding the Illiana expressway here.

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