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Editorial: Illiana Expressway a dead-end for now

Now is not the time to take down the “Road Closed” sign on the Illiana Expy., a proposed 47-mile toll road that would run from I-55 near Wilmington east to I-65 in Indiana.

The state is pretty much broke, and the Illiana’s companion project — a third Chicago-area airport — is going nowhere soon in this economy.

EDITORIAL

The Illiana would cost $1.5 billion to build and could cost taxpayers another $1.1 billion in subsidies over 35 years. Traffic would be light because the tolls would be high. It would pave over 3,000 acres of farmland and threaten the 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

With all the talk of belt-tightening in Springfield, you’d think someone would bury the Illiana proposal under a load of road concrete. But there it was again just last week — allotted $118 million in planning costs — in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s new highway plan. Opponents worry that full funding could show up on any last-minute capital spending plan that emerges as part of a budget deal in the Legislature.

On Friday, the Illinois Department of Transportation wrapped up a 39-meeting “infrastructure listening tour” that appeared designed to build up support for a capital bill. Spending money on basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges makes sense, but any new capital bill should be limited to projects on which there is a broad consensus. That would not be the Illiana. Last year, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group put the Illiana on its “Highway Boondoggles” list.

The Illiana becomes a far more appealing idea if and when an airport is built in Peotone. But the airport is grounded for now, too. If it takes wing in the future, the Illiani can be revisited.

Without the airport, the four-lane Illiana — a joint Illinois-Indiana project — is envisioned to be a truck corridor serving a growing south suburban intermodal freight system, diverting trucks from congested roads elsewhere. But last year, a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning staff report concluded the Illiana would have a “negligible” impact on regional traffic.

The Illiana is also envisioned as a “public-private partnership” in which investors help with the upfront costs in exchange for a share of the tolls. But a study by Fitch Ratings, commissioned by IDOT concluded the numbers don’t work. Investors won’t want any part of the project unless guaranteed a profit, meaning taxpayers would have to pony up for any losses.

Illinois already has a $1.8 billion-a-year to-do list just to fix up its existing transportation infrastructure, according to the Transportation for Illinois Coalition. The Illiana, for now at least, just doesn’t make the cut.