Local officials from across the region are set to decide this week on a proposal to build the first new stretch of interstate expressway in the region in four decades.
The full board of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, consisting of 53 local government officials, will meet Thursday to vote on whether to include the proposed Illiana Expressway in their 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan.
A vote in favor would propel the bistate expressway project forward, while a vote against could stop it in its tracks.
NIRPC Executive Director Tyson Warner said every NIRPC board member has to decide what resonates most when it comes to the goals outlined in NIRPC's 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan, which is essentially a master plan for transportation and development. And then they have to apply that thinking to the Illiana Expressway and vote accordingly.
"It's big," Warner said. "It's very big. This is a major, major project. I mean 47 miles of interstate highway doesn't come along every day."
NIRPC members will vote during a meeting that starts at 9 a.m. in the Sycamore Room, Woodland Park, 2100 Willowcreek Road, Portage.
So far, nine commissioners have committed to voting yes and one to voting no. Six have said they are undecided. The rest have not responded to emails or phone calls from The Times requesting they state their position.
Lowell Councilman Craig Earley represents constituents at what is ground zero for the expressway, which would run along the north edge of town. As a NIRPC board member he will be voting against the Illiana Expressway on Thursday, saying it is inconsistent with NIRPC's 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan.
"The plan itself says we support urban reinvestment," Earley said. "Well, Lowell and South Lake County are far from urban. In South Lake County right now, agriculture and natural resources are very important, so how can you say you are protecting that if you take thousands of acres out of production and out of the tax base?"
Earlier this year the Lowell Town Council voted to oppose the Illiana Expressway and on Nov. 12 it replaced its NIRPC representative to assure the town's vote goes against the expressway Thursday.
Crown Point Mayor and NIRPC Chairman David Uran is a strong advocate of the expressway, as is the City Council, which voted in favor of the project in a 5-2 vote Dec. 2.
"It would promote the ability for people to stop off in Crown Point and do business in our community," Uran said. "In that way, it will promote economic development."
Crown Point has experienced positive results from other major road projects, including the completion three years ago of a new Interstate 65 interchange at 109th Avenue and the building of I-65 itself 45 years ago, Uran said.
The Illiana Expressway would run 47 miles from Interstate 65 just northeast of Lowell to Interstate 55, near Wilmington, Ill. It has a projected cost of $1.3 billion.
The last major stretch of interstate highway built in the region was the extension of the Borman Expressway east of the Ripley Interchange in the early 1970s. Before that, the Borman Expressway essentially dead-ended at Ripley, leaving drivers the choice of going to the Indiana Toll Road or Ind. 51.
On Tuesday, NIRPC's Transportation Policy Committee voted 18-8 to recommend including the Illiana Expressway in the 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan. Seven members of the NIRPC full board took part in that vote.
Before that meeting, Committee Chairman Shawn Pettit set the agenda so it allowed for public comment before the vote. As the agenda stands now for Thursday's meeting, public comment will not be allowed until the meeting's end, which is NIRPC's usual procedure, according to Warner.
Important NIRPC full board votes like the one coming up Thursday are generally conducted by a roll call of members.
It will take 27 affirmative votes for passage of any motion on the Illiana Expressway, even if less than 53 NIRPC members attend the meeting, according to a lengthy memo put out this week by NIRPC attorney David Hollenbeck.
But Thursday's vote could provide some extra drama if a motion is made and seconded to use so-called "weighted" voting, which is provided for in NIRPC's enabling legislation. No vote of the whole body is needed to implement the weighted voting, it simply takes a motion by one member and a second by another.
Under the weighted voting provision, each commission member's voting power is proportional to the population of his or her municipality.
Because votes are assigned according to population under weighted voting, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.'s vote will count for 10.5 percent of the total vote and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's will count for 10.4 percent. After that the heavyweights are Portage with 4.8 percent and Merrillville with 4.6 percent. The community with the smallest share of the vote is Dune Acres at 0.02 percent.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who will vote next week as a member of the full NIRPC board, said last week he is officially undecided. But he said his vote may be inferred from how other city employees voted last week. In a NIRPC committee vote Tuesday, Hammond City Engineer Stan Dostatni voted no.
But on Friday, McDermott did not respond to requests for comment on the upcoming vote.
In the same Tuesday vote, city of Gary Planner Dwayne Williams abstained, saying the city administration had not yet made up its mind up on the Illiana Expressway. On Friday, mayor spokeswoman Chelsea Whittington said the mayor has not yet declared her intentions when it comes to Thursday's vote on the expressway.