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Stop the Illiana Tollway

Region: Illinois, Indiana
Stop the Illiana Tollway

Overview

Openlands is part of a coalition that is challenging the proposed Illiana Tollway – a 47-mile road that would connect Interstate 55 near Wilmington in Will County, Illinois to Interstate 65 north of Lowell in Lake County, Indiana. The limited access toll road poses a direct threat to a rich complex of state and federally-protected natural areas, such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the Kankakee River, and the Des Plaines Conservation Area.

In return, the project will move so few trucks and cars that traffic analysts predict it will likely fail to bring in enough toll revenue to support itself for decades, if ever. While the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) bills this project as a "public-private partnership," the public would be on the hook for much more than just the initially budgeted $80 million to continue engineering work and start buying land.  We would bear a huge portion of the risk of this billion dollar gamble  if the Illiana Tollway doesn't pay for itself, taxpayers have to cover the difference.

Illinois and Indiana deserve a better transportation alternative.

What would we lose if it were built?

The proposed Illiana tollway would have severe natural, cultural, and economic consequences (pdf) for communities in its wake. The tollway would ruin, sever, and diminish thousands of acres of productive agricultural land, running through farms that have been in families for over a century. It would pollute high quality rivers and creeks and pave over wetlands, encroaching upon beautiful federal and state protected areas such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and the Des Plaines Conservation Area. If built, the Illiana would likely connect to Route 53 (also known as the historic Alternative Route 66), ultimately intensifying truck traffic past the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and through the heart of Midewin. Noise, light and exhaust from these trucks would denigrate this globally significant U.S. Forest Service landscape by driving away wildlife (pdf) such as northern long-eared bats, which could be added to the federal endangered species list in October 2014, and grassland birds listed as state-endangered that nest in the area.

What is the cost?

According to studies by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and Metropolitan Planning Council (pdf), for over a billion dollars – possibly as much as 2.8 billion – the Illiana would do very little to alleviate congestion on nearby highways like I-80. (CMAP is responsible for long-range transportation planning in the Chicagoland region.) IDOT and Indiana DOT say they may need $610 million in upfront state money to build the road, on top of the more than $80 million IDOT is already authorized to spend to acquire land and move utilities as early as this year. The public could be responsible for a lot more, even with contributions from private funders, especially if the tolls are so expensive that it becomes another failed road project

The road would also undermine smart regional planning. In September 2013, CMAP staff recommended (pdf) that its Board reject the proposal by IDOT to add the Illiana Tollway as a major capital project to the region’s comprehensive GO TO 2040 plan. Staff found that the road and its impacts grossly deviated from the plan's core principles. In addition, IDOT and INDOT based the need for the tollway on flawed and irresponsible projections, rejecting wholesale the GO TO 2040 population and employment forecasts for the area. Instead of promoting sensible growth near where people live and work, staff found that the Illiana would relocate jobs from more urbanized areas into agricultural communities that want to maintain their rural identity. 

The CMAP Board agreed with its staff, voting ten to four against adding the Illiana Tollway as a priority capital project in GO TO 2040. Despite this strong opposition, the CMAP Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which is dominated by IDOT, overrode the CMAP Board decision. The MPO voted 11 to 8 to write the Illiana Tollway into the GO TO 2040 capital project short list and add it to the regional Transportation Improvement Program. This inserted the massive debt for the Illiana tollroad into our region's precariously balanced transportation checkbook, touting the project as one we can and should pay for.

What is a better solution?

Instead of spending billions of dollars on an unwarranted misfit tollway, IDOT and INDOT should reopen local dialogue with communities at a local and regional level to develop a true network of roads and transit where there is a real and documented need. The people of this region deserve a comprehensive, practical and financially viable alternative that alleviates traffic congestion, facilitates future local and regional truck mobility, honors our agricultural heritage, and enhances the integrity and value of the natural, cultural, and historic resources in the area.

What is next?

IDOT closed its final public comment period on its Tier 2 alternatives analysis in March 2014. Openlands and other coalition members commented in continued opposition (pdf) to the Illiana route and Route 53 interchange proposed in the Tier 2 Draft EIS. On March 14, 33 of the coalition's partner organizations wrote to Senators Durbin and Kirk, urging them to honor the strong critique by the United States Department of Interior on how the proposed Illiana tollroad would harm Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and surrounding natural areas like the Kankakee River. The Department of Interior analysis revealed inaccuracies in the Tier 2 EIS and serious impacts to a number of federal and state protected species. The United States Environmental Protection Agency shared the Department of Interior position against any interchange at Route 53, stating that it would have the "highest impacts to streams" (pdf) in the area. IDOT and INDOT intend to finalize their Tier 2 EIS and release a Record of Decision in Spring 2014.

IDOT and INDOT continue to move forward with their bidding processes for the Illiana project. They announced a Illinois (pdf) and Indiana (pdf) short lists of qualifying developer teams in early 2014 and intend to finalize RFPs (pdf) for the project in Fall 2014. The transportation agencies want to break ground in Spring 2015. 

Much of the financing for the Illiana Tollway remains questionable. While the United States Department of Transportation found the project is eligible to apply for a Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan in March 2014, this loan, if approved, would only account for a third of the project cost. Illinois and Indiana would still need to appropriate substantial tax revenue towards initial project costs and milestone payments to private contractors, which is not currently in either state's budget.

Openlands continues to advocate for our goals of protecting the region’s natural resources and encouraging good land use planning. To learn more, read coalition Tier 1 comments about the proposed route (pdf), as well as about the transportation agencies’ failure to account for massive environmental and agricultural harm to communities (pdf) in the area.


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