The top INDOT official in northern Indiana delivered a vigorous defense of the proposed Illiana Expressway on Thursday, following a flurry of activity by environmental groups in recent weeks in opposition to the bi-state road.
"If you look at it from a connectivity, community point of view, I think you will see this project has tremendous value for Northwest Indiana," INDOT Deputy Commissioner Bob Alderman told a full commission meeting of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.
Alderman told the commission the roadway will both relieve congestion and improve air quality in the region, which are two key goals of NIRPC's 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan. In relieving congestion, it will also aid other projects like the Gary/Chicago International Airport expansion, Alderman said.
A NIRPC committee heard last week from Illiana Expressway planners, who said their studies show building the Illiana Expressway would reduce total time motorists would spend driving in the region by about 35,700 hours per year.
Alderman's defense of the expressway comes after a month in which a number of environmental groups passed resolutions opposing it. Three of those groups filed a lawsuit earlier this month alleging building the expressway would violate land-use plans passed earlier by NIRPC and a similar agency in Illinois.
A representative of the Duneland Chapter of the Sierra Club, Judy Roesler, responded to Alderman in the public comment section of Thursday's meeting.
She asked commission members to consider passing a resolution submitted by the Duneland Chapter opposing the road because of its effect on the Kankakee River basin and natural habitat.
"We do have the same goals as you: a better stronger region," she said. "We just differ on how to approach that."
The Illiana Expressway has an estimated $1.3 billion price tag. Transportation officials in both state are hoping private investors will pay for building the 46.8-mile expressway in exchange for a cut of toll revenues. The road would head westward from Interstate 65 in Indiana and run between Lowell and Cedar Lake and then all the way to Interstate 55 in Illinois, near Wilmington.
The commission also heard an update on the Gary/Chicago International Airport runway expansion from airport consultant John Clark.
The consultant said the key to the airport and Gary's future lies in their access to global markets.
"The fact there is a port here, the fact there is rail here, the fact their are highways and an airport that can go global can all support a global logistics center," Clark said.
Clark's talk came two weeks after it was announced the airport's deadline for completion of its $166 million expansion project had been pushed back from this year to September of next year.