A key committee at the Chicago region's lead planning agency gave a major boost Thursday to the Illiana Expressway, opening the door to eventual federal approval of the project.
The policy committee of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning voted 11 to 8 in favor of including the expressway in its long-term transportation plan after almost three hours of public discussion at the Willis Tower.
In a sign of the passions the issue has raised, more than 100 people were forced to watch the proceedings on a live video feed in a neighboring room, because the CMAP board meeting room was filled. More than 35 people commented before the vote, including politicians, pastors, farmers and others.
Many of the arguments in favor of the road cited the need to get Illinois off the dime for public-private partnerships by using the Illiana Expressway as a model.
“For those who believe in the free-market system, then let the free market work,” said Illinois state Sen. Toi Hutchinson.
Hutchinson was the chief Senate sponsor of the public-private partnership legislation that was passed with the Illiana Expressway in mind.
That argument seemed to win some unexpected support for the road, including that of Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawler, who said the Illiana Expressway is important for showing the world Illinois is open to public-private partnerships.
But others argued the financial risks for Illinois that go with building the toll road, even with a public private partnership, are just too great.
“The Illiana simply does not give the bang for the buck, pure and simple,” said Elliott Hartstein, former Buffalo Grove village president.
The Illiana Expressway would link the 47 miles from Interstate 65 just northeast of Lowell to Interstate 55 near Wilmington, Ill. It has a projected cost of $1.3 billion.
On Oct. 9, the CMAP board voted 10-4 against a motion to include the Illiana Expressway in its long-term transportation plan, which is called Go To 2040.
But Thursday's vote by the policy committee was the definitive one.
That's because the CMAP policy committee's approval means IDOT can submit the project for federal approval once it finishes its environmental impact study for the road.
Now attention turns to Indiana, where the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission will hold a series of public meetings on the expressway in November. It will take a final vote on including the Illiana Expressway in its long-term transportation plan on Dec. 12.
That vote will be the key to winning federal support for the Indiana portion of the expressway.
The Indiana and Illinois departments of transportation plan to submit the Illiana Expressway for federal approval late this year or early next.
Federal approval will also be a key to attracting private investors to help finance the road, which is a stated goal of both Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Indiana Gov. Michael Pence.
The CMAP policy committee is chaired by Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider, a vocal backer of the planned 47-mile tollway.
Schneider's faction appeared to pick up some support from more collar county leaders in the past few days, which proved key to getting the vote she wanted.
“We are excited about going ahead with the state's first public-private partnership,” Schneider said after the vote.
The transportation secretary said construction could start as early as late 2014, if a federal record of decision was obtained in the spring.
Schneider said all activities are being coordinated with Indiana. However, both states plan to bid out their portions of the road for a public-private partnership.