Chicago planning agency strikes major blow against Illiana

2013-10-09T12:30:00Z 2013-12-09T10:51:26Z Chicago planning agency strikes major blow against IllianaKeith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com
October 09, 2013 12:30 pm  • 

CHICAGO | The Chicago region's lead planning agency on Wednesday rejected including the Illiana Expressway in its long-term plan, a blow to a project that was long thought to have strong bistate support.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning voted 4 in favor and 10 against a motion to include the Illiana Expressway in its Go To 2040 plan near the end of a contentious meeting at the Willis Tower.

“This plan has been dumped on us by the governor and by IDOT,” said Gerald Bennett, chairman of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and mayor of Palos Hills. “Well, political decisions are over as far as I'm concerned on this board.”

Bennett's words before the vote only hinted at some of the acrimony the issue has raised between the state and CMAP.

In an opening statement, Bennett claimed the Illinois Department of Transportation has been delaying payments to CMAP since the organization's staff issued a report critical of the Illiana Expressway in July.

IDOT later Wednesday released a letter sent Tuesday by Secretary of Transportation Ann Schneider to CMAP in which she stated the delay in payments is due to increased scrutiny of reimbursements to planning agencies statewide. She contended any delays are due to requests for additional supporting documentation.

IDOT spokeswoman Jae Miller said the Illiana Expressway controversy and the reimbursement delays are "in no way, shape, or form connected."

However, the CMAP full board vote on the plan Wednesday is not the last word. On Oct. 17, CMAP's Metropolitan Planning Organization arm will take a vote that will be even more critical to the expressway's future.

That organization, though an arm of CMAP, has a different makeup than the full board.

If the Metropolitan Planning Organization votes in favor of the Illiana Expressway, the project can go forward and the two state departments of transportation can apply for federal approval. If the the Metropolitan Planning Organization votes against it, it could effectively be dead for now.

CMAP's Go To 2040 plan is a long-range transportation and development plan covering the seven counties represented on the CMAP board.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission full board will vote on including the Illiana Expressway in its 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan on Dec. 12. Unlike CMAP, NIRPC's Metropolitan Planning Organization and full board are one and the same. So no subsequent vote will be needed.

The Illiana Expressway would run 47 miles from Interstate 65 just northeast of Lowell to Interstate 55, near Wilmington, Ill.

CMAP Executive Director Randall Blankenhorn addressed the issue of the NIRPC vote in a post-meeting news conference when he was asked what happens if CMAP's Metropolitan Planning Organization votes against the Illiana Expressway and the NIRPC board votes for it.

“Indiana has to look at it from its point of view,” Blankenhorn said. “It will be awkward if one of us approves and one doesn't. But for the project to go forward both agencies must approve.”

Blankenhorn also addressed the issue of a possible split vote at his agency if the Metropolitan Planning Organization votes in favor of including the Illiana Expressway in the 2040 plan.

He said if that happens, the CMAP board would work with the Metropolitan Planning Organization to make sure it is included in the plan and go forward.

As a pledge of good faith he noted the CMAP board Wednesday approved $11 million more in funding for IDOT to complete its environmental, engineering and financial analysis of the Illiana Expressway.

The Illiana Expressway was vigorously defended by IDOT and Gov. Pat Quinn's office at CMAP's Wednesday meeting.

IDOT projects manager Pete Harmet encouraged the board to vote in favor of the proposal to include the Illiana Expressway in its Go To 2040 plan. Harmet said the question of whether the road can pay for itself through tolls will be answered when it is put out to bid for a public-private partnership.

“Ultimately the bidders and credit rating agencies will tell us if that's a good deal for taxpayers,” Harmet said.

He also defended the project against allegations it does not offer a return on investment comparable to other major projects in Illinois. He pointed out it would rank second in increasing Regional Gross Product of any major road project in Illinois.

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