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Illiana Expressway planners tap brakes
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Illiana Expressway planners tap brakes

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Just a few months ago, the Illiana Expressway appeared to be on a fast track to construction, but recent events have thrown some speed bumps in its way.

Some of those were laid bare at Thursday's meeting of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission executive board, which heard some of the latest developments regarding the proposed 47-mile toll road.

INDOT Project Manager James Earl explained ongoing consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on how to protect habitat and species have pushed back the timeline for the project, with construction now expected to start in the late summer or fall of 2015.

Pat Mussman, whose home and farmland are adjacent to a planned Illiana Expressway interchange, wanted to know how plans for the road can even go forward following the failure of expressway funding legislation in Illinois in May.

"With this happening in Illinois, will we end up building 12 miles of road that goes nowhere?" she asked in the public comment section of the meeting.

Senate Bill 1825 failed to get a vote in the Illinois General Assembly after representatives complained about the bill prioritizing state payments to investors expected to build and operate the road. The bill would funnel payments to investors through creation of an Illiana Expressway Public Private Trust Fund.

In fact, most of the uncertainties for the bistate expressway have their origin in Illinois, which will have three-quarters of the road's length. It also will contain one of its largest pieces of infrastructure, a bridge over the Kankakee River.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned about the effect of the road and bridge on the Kankakee's water quality and the sheep-nose mussel there, said Fish and Wildlife Chicago Field Office Supervisor Louise Clemency last week. Her agency and others also have concerns about the road's impact on the nearby Midewin National Tall Grass Prairie.

"If you put in a new roadway, and a bridge over a high quality waterway, there are going to be a lot of impacts," she said.

State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee, said no special legislation will be needed in Indiana to finance the Illiana Expressway or enter into a public-private partnership. Indiana law already allows the Indiana Finance Authority and INDOT to take the actions needed, he said at Thursday's NIRPC meeting.

Illinois Department of Transportation officials have said they are committed to exploring all alternatives available for building the expressway at the lowest cost possible.

Indiana and Illinois already have estimated they may have to pay up to a combined $270 million to investors in the form of milestone payments in 2018 and 2019 for getting the road built.

The Illiana Expressway would run from Interstate 65 just northeast of Lowell to Interstate 55, near Wilmington, Ill. It has an estimated $1.5 billion price tag.

Soliday and other state officials also took the opportunity Thursday to again explain why they feel the road is vital.

"If we don't do anything, and this would happen in the next 10 to 20 years, we would have absolute gridlock on 80/94," Soliday said.

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