On Thursday, the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission will hold a crucial vote on the Illiana Expressway. Depending on the outcome, the road might or might not be built.
There are no easy answers when it comes to this project. The following are drawn from analyses and forecasts by the Indiana and Illinois departments of transportation (INDOT and IDOT), Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC), and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). Where there is consensus, one answer is given. Where forecasts and analyses differ significantly, an effort is made to highlight those differences.
Q: Where would the expressway go?
A: The 47-mile toll road would start at Interstate 65, just south of 153rd Street near Lowell. It would run almost due west, with some slight deviations, joining Interstate 55 near Wilmington, Ill. In addition to the I-65 interchange in Indiana, there would be other interchanges at Ind. 55 and U.S. 41. In Illinois, in addition to the I-55 interchange, there would be interchanges at Ill. 1, Ill. 50, I-57, U.S. 45/52, Cedar/Wilton Center Road, and Ill. 53.
Q: Why there?
A: The expressway would serve primarily as a freight bypass for truckers and motorists trying to avoid the Chicago metropolitan area's congested expressways and local roads. If placed farther north it would plow through densely developed commercial and residential areas. If placed further south it would endanger the Kankakee River.
Q: Who would use it?
A: By 2040, traffic would build to about 24,000 vehicles per day, with up to 11,000 of those vehicles trucks, according to joint INDOT/IDOT studies.
Q: Will it be a toll road?
Q: How much will tolls be?
A: So far, tolls of about 16 cents per mile for cars and 36 cents per mile for trucks have been found to be optimum for raising revenue but not scaring off too many drivers. That works out to about $7.50 for a car running the length of the expressway and about $16.80 for a truck.
Q: Will it relieve traffic congestion on the Borman Expressway (I-80/94)?
A: That is one of the issues where there is the greatest difference between forecasts. According to NIRPC, building the Illiana Expressway would relieve traffic on the I-80/94 by about 8.6 percent. A study conducted a few years ago said the expressway would reduce expected I-80/94 traffic by about 2.2 percent.
Q: Will it help get traffic off state and local arterials?
A: According to the NIRPC analysis, it would reduce daily traffic expected on Ind. 2 by about 4.9 percent, on U.S. 231 by about 3.1 percent and on U.S. 30 by 0.8 percent.
Q: What about trucks?
A: The Illiana Expressway appears to deliver the biggest bang for the buck in getting truck traffic off local roads. According to the NIRPC analysis it would reduce expected miles driven by trucks on the Borman Expressway (I-80/94) by 22 percent; on Ind. 2 by 25 percent; and on U.S. 231 by 34 percent; and on U.S. 30 by 26 percent.
Q: How much will it cost?
A: The Illiana Expressway estimated price tag is $1.3 billion. Of that, $1 billion is for the 35-mile Illinois portion and $300 million for the 12-mile Indiana portion.
Q: Who is going to pay for it?
A: This is where it really gets complicated. Both INDOT and IDOT forecast the entire cost of construction and operation can be recouped from toll collections by 2053. However, both states will put upfront money in the project. Indiana's share is expected to be $80 million to $110 million. Illinois' upfront costs are expected to be between $450 million and $500 million. The states hope to raise the rest of the upfront money from private investors who would build and operate the expressway in exchange for what are called "availability payments." That arrangement has been used by Indiana for building a bridge over the Ohio River. Once the Ohio River bridge is open, Indiana will pay an investment group about $32.9 million per year in availability payments. The forecast that tolls will pay the entire cost of the Illiana Expressway has been sharply challenged, with a CMAP analysis showing the need for a $440 million to $1 billion public subsidy.
Q: Will that work?
A: That is the $1.3 billion question. Both IDOT and INDOT forecast Will County and south Lake County are in for explosive growth in coming years, particularly when it comes to freight shipments, which will drive traffic to the expressway and produce the needed toll revenue. The magazine Toll Road News has been sharply critical of politicians' drive for the Illiana Expressway, asserting that such toll roads built as public-private partnerships in sparsely populated urban fringe areas rarely succeed.
Q: Who wants this road anyway?
A: Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn are both enthusiastic promoters of the expressway. In 2010, then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Quinn signed a bistate agreement to rev up the Illiana Expressway project. Railroads and operators of intermodal freight centers in Joliet and Elwood are also enthusiastic promoters of the expressway, as are Will County economic development officials. The Northwest Indiana Forum, an economic development group, has also endorsed the project. On Oct. 17, CMAP's Transportation Policy Committee approved the Illinois portion of the expressway in an 11 to 8 vote.