Illiana Expressway turns corner toward reality

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z 2014-03-16T00:50:04Z Illiana Expressway turns corner toward realityBy Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

The region turned a corner on a bi-state expressway talked about for decades when the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission approved the Illiana Expressway in December.

That vote allowed both Indiana and Illinois to move ahead with the federal approval process for the 47-mile toll road that would run from Interstate 65 just northeast of Lowell to Interstate 55, near Wilmington, Ill.

A Tier II Draft Environmental Impact Statement released in January states building the road could add 14,210 jobs in the wider region by 2040.

NIRPC's approval came amid a contentious vote on whether to include the expressway in its long-term plan for Northwest Indiana development. That plan, called the 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan, has been nationally recognized.

"The 2040 Regional Plan came out of that process intact," said NIRPC Executive Director Tyson Warner. "We were able to keep everyone engaged with the long-term vision for Northwest Indiana, no matter how they felt on this particular issue."

The Indiana Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Transportation both want to develop the road as a public-private partnership and have been requesting proposals from private investors. A public-private partnership for road building would be a first for Illinois.

Both states want the final investor team or teams selected to provide some of the upfront money for building the $1.3 billion road in exchange for yearly payments from the states once it is up and running.

The four-lane toll road would take some truck traffic off local roads and serve intermodal rail yards in Illinois as well as the south suburban airport planned for Peotone.

It would also serve Indiana business parks such as the AmeriPlex at the Crossroads developed by the Purdue Research Foundation and Holladay Properties. It also would help speed commuters to jobs in both states.

Indiana and Illinois hope the needed federal approvals come through this year and that construction can start as soon as 2015.

While most eyes were fixed on the approval process for the Illiana Expressway, the Indiana Department of Transportation in conjunction with local communities completed a number of major projects in the region last year.

In Hammond, INDOT spent $18 million to replace the former Nine-Span Bridge, which takes Indianapolis Boulevard over the Gibson Yard rail facility.

The new bridge is strikingly different in appearance from the rusting truss structure it replaced. It has clean sweeping lines formed by long concrete beams and parapets and a driving surface with no superstructure above.

In the city of Gary, INDOT's rebuilding of 4 1/2 miles of U.S 12 and U.S. 20, which included the sidewalks on both sides, has dramatically enhanced the city's downtown streetscape.

A cap was put on the $14.3 million project with installation of a commemorative marker for the city's historic streetcar rail line, with the marker utilizing rails dug up during reconstruction of the two streets.

INDOT has spent about $450 million in state and federal road funds in Lake County alone since 2006, the second most spent on any one county in the state, according to INDOT spokesman Matt Deitchley.

Also completed in Gary last year was the Airport Road overpass, which now whisks trucks and cars over the CSX railroad tracks. The overpass was named for World War II Tuskegee Airman Quentin P. Smith, a long-time Gary leader and educator.

In November, the city of Valparaiso in Porter County opened its five-points roundabout, built by Walsh & Kelly at a cost of $2.27 million. The roundabout now calms traffic and provides an easy interchange for traffic on North Calumet, Roosevelt Road and Vale Park.

The city also secured $2.8 million in funds in 2013 for future improvements to the LaPorte/Silhavy intersection and enhancements along Ransom Road.

INDOT has also pledged to replace the deck of the historic bridge on Ind. 49 over the Kankakee River this year, while preserving its historic truss design. The bridge has been restricted to one lane for almost two years for safety reasons.

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