Illiana Expressway votes approaching fast

2013-10-02T18:00:00Z 2013-10-03T17:29:08Z Illiana Expressway votes approaching fastKeith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com
October 02, 2013 6:00 pm  • 

A meeting Friday in Chicago kicks off what could be a wild, two-month ride for the Illiana Expressway.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's transportation committee is expected to take a vote for or against the Illiana Expressway at its 9:30 a.m. monthly meeting Friday at the Willis Tower, with its recommendation passed on to the full CMAP board for a vote Oct. 9.

A similar process is kicking into gear at the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, which expects to open a public comment period on the Illiana Expressway on Oct. 14. The Portage-based agency also will host four public comment meetings during that period.

The vote of both organizations is critical to the expressway getting built. Each agency's approval is needed to make federal funds available for the project in their respective states.

The Illiana Expressway in its entirety would be one of the largest public infrastructure projects undertaken in the region since the building of the U.S. interstate highway system more than 50 years ago, according to NIRPC planner Mitch Barloga.

It is planned as a 47-mile toll road running from Interstate 65 just northeast of Lowell to Interstate 55 near Wilmington, Ill.

"There are many strong views on this facility, as you would expect," Barloga said. "NIRPC wants to make sure the public understands there is still adequate time for comment and feedback and that their views will be heard."

NIRPC's transportation committee is expected to vote for or against the Illiana Expressway at its Dec. 3 meeting. The committee's recommendation then will be passed onto the full commission for a vote Dec. 12.

The CMAP process contains two additional wrinkles in that its regional coordinating committee will vote on the expressway right before the Oct. 9 meeting and its Metropolitan Planning Organization arm will vote on it Oct. 17.

CMAP's Metropolitan Planning Organization is chaired by Illinois Secretary of Transportation Ann Schneider, who is a strong proponent of getting the expressway built.

The specifics of the votes at both CMAP and NIRPC entail the necessity of including the mega-project in each agency's long range transportation plan. CMAP calls its long-range plan GO TO 2040 and NIRPC calls its plan the 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan.

NIRPC most likely will combine the Illiana Expressway vote with one on the widening of Interstate 65 south of U.S. 30, Barloga said. That is because the two projects are being analyzed as one.

The only way around a no vote for the expressway at either organization would be to build it as a completely private enterprise, similar to the deal struck for the Cline Avenue Bridge. But that scenario for the Illiana Expressway is unlikely.

The approval of the two agencies also is needed to obtain a record of decision from federal agencies for the expressway, according to Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Jim Pinkerton. That is also a crucial step before construction can start.

CMAP's staff already has issued a recommendation against approving the Illiana Expressway, claiming it will offer inadequate return on investment and could drain funds away from other needed projects.

NIRPC staff now is preparing its own report and analysis of the proposed expressway, according to NIRPC's Barloga. However, NIRPC's staff report may not make any hard recommendation for or against including the expressway in its 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan.

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