Illiana Expressway project survives latest challenge from opponents who call it a boondoggle

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CHICAGO — A planned 47-mile expressway between Illinois and Indiana survived another attempt Thursday to scuttle the $1.5 billion project, which has become a top public works priority for Gov. Pat Quinn despite concerns from regional planners that it will become a boondoggle.

The Democratic Illinois governor and his Department of Transportation have pressed hard for the expressway, arguing it will be a massive job generator for areas south of Chicago and a relief valve for Interstate 80 congestion. Critics say the project is unnecessary and will leave taxpayers on the hook if toll revenues fall short. Environmentalists also oppose it, warning it will spoil rural areas in Will County.

The latest clash over the project came during a meeting in Chicago of the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee. The group gathered for what would normally have been a routine vote on updates to the region's long-term infrastructure and land use plan, known as GO TO 2040. But opponents of the Illiana took the opportunity to put forward a motion calling for the update to be approved without the expressway. It failed in an 8-10 vote. A separate vote to approve the updates, with the Illiana, passed.

The project's inclusion in the GO TO 2040 plan is needed to unlock federal funding, though the state says much of the upfront costs will come from a private investor. The state plans to use toll revenues to pay back the debt.

The roadway would offer cars and trucks an east-west link between Interstate 65 in Indiana and Interstate 55 in Illinois. Many businesses, labor unions and community groups support the project.

But an analysis released last year by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning concluded the route's traffic and tolls would fall short, leaving taxpayers on the hook for anywhere from $440 million to $1.1 billion.

Agency staffers also concluded it would have minimal impact on economic development or long-term job creation beyond the workforce needed to build it.

A majority of that agency's board has been against the project. They also tried in a separate vote Wednesday to strip the Illiana out of the GO TO 2040 plan. It fell two votes short.

Opponents of the project are vowing to continue a fight against it, and a lawsuit is pending.

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