RICH JAMES: Lake transportation system needs upgrades

2013-04-24T00:00:00Z RICH JAMES: Lake transportation system needs upgradesRich James nwitimes.com
April 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

If there were snail darters in Indiana, opponents of the Illiana Expressway likely would have used them to block the proposed highway.

The snail darter — a 2- to 3-inch fish – halted the construction of the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River in 1973.

After Congress and the Supreme Court wrangled over the issue for six years, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation to allow the dam to proceed.

There might not be snail darters in south Lake County, but Illiana opponents have developed their own list of “endangered species” in an effort to stop the expressway that would run between Lowell and Cedar Lake from Interstate 65 to Interstate 55 in Illinois.

They say it will affect farming and drainage, school bus routes and emergency responders.

State Rep. Rick Niemeyer, a Lowell-area resident, even trotted out the time-worn — but baseless threat — that the Illiana would lead to the construction of an airport at Peotone.

While there is some validity to the opponents’ assertions, the bottom line is that they don’t want change. Yet many of those concerns can be allayed. And state highway officials have been trying to do that. But Illiana opponents don’t want to hear it.

Those who stand in the way of change block progress. And Lake County has made few economic gains since 1980, when the steel industry said it needed just a fraction of the workforce it once employed. And as steel declined, the industrial rust spread.

Not surprisingly, the latest population projection shows Lake County has lost residents since the 2010 census.

Any economist worth his salt will tell you Lake County isn’t going to grow until it upgrades its antiquated transportation system, which is one of the worst in the country for an urban area.

With an inability to get around, there is little incentive for businesses — both traditional and high-tech — to look to Lake County for starting anew.

Proponents, including former Gov. Mitch Daniels, say the Illiana will reduce truck traffic on local roads, cut commute times, reduce congestion and improve accessibility to jobs.

They also say the highway will create 9,000 construction jobs and 25,000 long-term jobs.

And wouldn’t it be nice if the Illiana absorbed some of the congestion that clogs the Borman Expressway, often forcing traffic onto secondary roads in Lake County?

Other than adding lanes to the Borman, there hasn’t been a significant east-west highway improvement here in decades.

On the hand, look a short distance to the greater Chicago area and the development that an ever-growing highway system helped bring. And, yes, they did it even though some stood in the way of change.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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