The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission on Thursday voted in favor of the Illiana Expressway by a 76-20 weighted vote, waving through a massive road building project that could get underway as soon as 2015.
The vote means plans for the expressway can be submitted soon for final federal approvals and a search for private investors can kick into high gear. If the full NIRPC board had voted against the expressway, it would have stopped the project in its tracks.
"This was a difficult decision in the face of a lot of public opposition," said Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson immediately after the vote. "I am sensitive to the citizens of Lowell who will lose their property. But we really have to think of the greater good."
The full NIRPC board made its decision by weighted vote, where each community's representative was assigned his or her share of 100 total votes based on his or her community's population. The unweighted tally was 29-8 in favor.
A crowd of about 300 packed the Sycamore Room at Woodland Park for the meeting.
Underlining the historic significance of the vote, Gov. Mike Pence issued a statement in the afternoon praising NIRPC for its action.
"I believe roads mean jobs, and today's vote on the Illiana Corridor Project brings us one step closer to more jobs for northwestern Indiana," Pence stated.
The NIRPC board took the day's central vote on the Illiana Expressway about 11:30 a.m., 2 1/2 hours after the meeting's start. That vote was taken on a motion to include the Illiana Expressway and widening of Interstate 65 from U.S. 231 to U.S. 30 in NIRPC's 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan. Two other votes on the expressway yielded similar results.
The high stakes of Thursday's vote were made clear when INDOT Northwest Indiana Chief Bob Alderman, a nonvoting board member, made a long and impassioned plea for members to approve the expressway.
He reiterated all the arguments in favor of the Illiana Expressway but focused his most passionate argument on safety. He said maintaining the new expressway will make the Borman Expressway and other roads safer. He even recalled for his listeners the August Interstate 65 crash near DeMotte that killed four children and three adults.
"Are you comfortable with your friends and families and constituents traveling on those highways today?" Alderman asked near the end of his plea. "When you walk away from here today, do you feel you've done the right thing?"
Lowell Councilman Craig Earley countered Alderman's argument.
"They are talking about running thousands of semis down this toll road (Illiana Expressway)," Earley said. "So what makes this toll road safer than yours? There will be accidents."
Lake County Councilwoman Christine Cid said if state officials were truly concerned with safety on congested roads, they would have rebuilt the Cline Avenue Bridge. Its closure has driven trucks onto East Chicago streets, endangering children and hurting businesses, Cid said.
The Illiana Expressway would run 47 miles from I-65, in Indiana, to Interstate 55, in Illinois. It would cost $1.3 billion to build, with state transportation officials hoping to raise some of that money from private investors.
Freeman-Wilson, who never declared how she would vote before Thursday's meeting, tipped her hand with the morning's first vote in favor of an air quality report on the expressway. When she finally spoke before the day's central vote, she said Gary's interests were aligned with the region's and that is why she supported the expressway.
Opponents called for the weighted vote. In hindsight, the better strategy may have been to allow a straight roll call vote to proceed. A roll call vote at NIRPC requires a majority of the whole body of 53 for a motion for it to pass. That means the motion to include the Illiana Expressway in NIRPC's 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan only succeeded by two votes.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. made a motion early in the meeting to delay the vote to another day because the NIRPC committee in charge of implementing its 2040 plan had been unable last week to come to a decision for or against it.
"We are taking people's homes with this," McDermott said in pleading for the delay. "We are changing the landscape of South Lake County."
The motion when seconded led to a lengthy discussion. It failed on a voice vote.
In October, the policy committee of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning voted 11-8 to include the Illiana Expressway in the agency's long- and short-range transportation plans, propelling the Illinois portion of the project forward.
Approval by both NIRPC and CMAP was necessary so that INDOT and IDOT could submit the projects for federal approval.