The first of four public comment meetings on the Illiana Expressway to be conducted by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission drew only a few people to Indiana University Northwest on Saturday.
The meetings are being held to take public comment on the state's request to include the expressway in NIRPC's transportation plans. The full NIRPC board will vote on including the expressway in those plans on Dec. 12. Without an affirmative vote by the board, the expressway cannot go forward.
A second public comment meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Lowell Middle School on Tuesday is expected to draw a crowd because of the community's proximity to the proposed route for the 47-mile toll road. It would run from Interstate 65 in Indiana to Interstate 55 in Illinois.
The public can ask questions of NIRPC staff and Indiana Department of Transportation officials at the meetings. People can comment in writing. The meetings are not open-microphone hearings. People can also comment by e-mailing or writing to NIRPC.
Former truck driver and avid conservationist Mike Echterling, of Highland, came to Saturday's meeting to tell why he is opposed to the proposed expressway.
"It's basically everything about it," he said. "It's hard to separate the issues. It's a wildlife barrier. It's a watershed issue. And it's a business issue."
As a former trucker, he opined truck drivers will be unwilling to pay a toll on a road that may only comprise a small part of their route. He also said he didn't believe assertions by expressway boosters that it will relieve congestion on local roads.
The Illiana Corridor Planning Group formed by the two state departments of transportation maintains the Illiana Expressway would greatly relieve traffic congestion on arterial and local roads.
According to the group's forecast, the expressway would result in travel time savings of 96,000 vehicle hours per day within the region. That translates into $1 million every day, according to the forecast.
"It will improve regional mobility on the entire transportation system and it will improve local accessibility," said INDOT spokesman Jim Pinkerton at Saturday's meeting.
The Illinois Department of Transportation has announced it will release a request for qualifications on Friday for private investors who are interested in designing, building, financing and operating the Illinois portion of the Illiana Expressway. The Indiana Department of Transportation plans to put out its request for qualifications for the Indiana portion of the expressway about a week later.