MARC CHASE: Controversial Illiana makes strange bedfellows

2013-12-12T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Controversial Illiana makes strange bedfellowsMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
December 12, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Do you want to see multiple competing political interests — the ones typically bent on ripping out each others' throats — join hands in a semblance of harmony? Just propose an interstate tollway through the serene rural area of an otherwise industrial county.

Some people might be stunned to know the proposed Illiana Expressway, which certainly created plenty of divisions between competing interests in Lake County, also unified some particularly strange bedfellows.

There are plenty of great initiatives upon which I wish more competing factions in the region could agree. In this case, though, it's gratifying to see some key north county, urban political heads of state marry their interests with the rural, south county Illiana naysayers in Lowell.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission is slated to vote today on whether to include this controversial road in its long-term plan — a move that would open the doors for federal funding and make a future Illiana much more likely.

Regardless how that vote goes today, some key urban leaders have agreed to help rural Lowell Illiana opponents place tire spikes in the pathway of the plan.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who leads the county's most populace city and sits on the NIRPC board, told me Tuesday he would be "a staunch advocate" for the interests of south Lake County residents who live in the path of the proposed tollway.

The mayor, also the county's Democratic Party chairman, said he will be voting against the proposal today, and he believes other north county colleagues will be joining him. He said he was moved by video interviews he watched of residents who could lose their "rural dream homes" if the road went through.

McDermott also pointed out the Illiana would encourage sprawl by diverting traffic and business away from his city's urban core. Our views are often at odds, but I agree with the mayor on this salient point. McDermott is showing courage by bucking the labor unions, key supporters of his party who are pushing hard for the Illiana and its promise of union construction jobs.

The impassioned statements of McDermott, typically a fierce partisan Democrat, came no less than an hour after the Lake County Council adopted a resolution opposing the Illiana — a move sponsored by County Councilman Eldon Strong, a staunch south county Republican who has consistently opposed the tollway.

Joining this chorus was County Councilwoman Christine Cid, an East Chicago Democrat who has been brutally at odds with McDermott this year on hot-button political issues including the newly adopted local-option income tax.

The unification of these often-competing voices in their opposition to the Illiana is beginning to resemble the fictional "Who" characters in Dr. Seuss' famous Grinch story. You know, the ones joining hand-in-hand to sing away the evil deeds of the green monster who stole Christmas.

Can this sort of unity last?

Maybe not. But in this fractured county, we have to congregate upon whatever common ground presents itself.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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