LOWELL | A public comment meeting Tuesday night at ground zero for the Illiana Expressway in Indiana drew residents eager to register their protests and anxious about what happens next.
"I don't know what they are hoping to get from people at this meeting," said Dave Schaulat, who lives directly in the path of the planned expressway. "INDOT knows how many people are against this, but it obviously hasn't swayed their decision."
In the first 45 minutes of the meeting at Lowell Middle School, 170 people signed in to look at maps, ask questions and write out comments on forms provided.
The public comment meeting was organized by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, which will host two more meetings in Porter County. The meetings are designed to gather public comments before a vote of the full 52-member NIRPC board on Dec. 12.
NIRPC must approve including the Illiana Expressway in its long- and short-range transportation plans in order to win federal approval for the toll road. A vote is scheduled for December. The Indiana Department of Transportation and Illinois Department of Transportation are the expressway's chief backers and are in charge of its planning.
Lowell Town Council member Edgar Corns said he and three other council members voted against the Illiana Expressway in a vote earlier this year. Council member Ron Parker, who is one of 52 NIRPC board members who can vote on the Illiana Expressway in December, abstained.
Corns said in voting against the expressway earlier this year, he and his fellow council members were representing their constituents.
"I think it will just kill the property values," Corns said. "If you had put your life's savings in a house and someone put a toll road 150 feet away, what would you do?"
The Illiana Expressway would run 47 miles from Interstate 65 just northeast of Lowell to Interstate 55, near Wilmington, Ill.
In contrast to open microphone public hearings held previously on the Illiana Expressway at the same location, supporters of the road were almost impossible to find Tuesday night.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who is also a member of the 52-member NIRPC board, said he has not decided how he will vote. He said the expressway may be more than 25 miles away from Hammond and other northern cities, but his constituents still have concerns.
"There are worries that we will be diverting business away from our business districts," McDermott said at Tuesday night's meeting. "Whether we like it or not right now a lot of that traffic stops in Hammond and buys dinner there."
There also are concerns building the Illiana Expressway would continue to draw population away from northern cities and to the southern part of the county, exacerbating problems with sprawl, McDermott said.
When the NIRPC board makes its decision in December, it may do so with members' votes "weighted" by the population of their communities. If it does, McDermott would have the largest single vote because his community is the most populous.