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Illiana Corridor proposal fails to win over planning board

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 9:47 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 9:48 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO (MCT) — The Chicago region's main planning agency turned thumbs-down Wednesday on Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed Illiana Corridor amid charges that the governor was playing political hardball to get the project approved.

The board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, made up of representatives from the seven-county region and the city of Chicago, voted 10-4 to reject the controversial $1.3 billion project.

The action sets the stage for a final, decisive vote on the Illiana next week by another key regional planning board.

The Illiana would be a 47-mile toll road running through southern Will County, linking Interstate 55 near Wilmington with I-57 near Peotone and I-65 near Lowell, Ind.

The project needs the support of the planning boards for development. But CMAP contends the project is incompatible with the agency's long-range master plan. Among other objections, it argues that the project has the potential to expose the state to "significant financial risk."

CMAP's chairman, Gerald Bennett, accused Quinn and IDOT of exerting "high pressure" on county officials to push the Illiana through and bypass the consensus behind the agency's strategic plan, known as GO TO 2040.

The regional plan is "the people's plan" but the Illiana is "a political plan that has been dropped on us by the governor," said Bennett, the mayor of Palos Hills.

"I've never seen so much political pressure being put on the members of the board in the history of this agency," Bennett said, adding that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich once tried to stack the board with his appointees but eventually "backed off."

Sean O'Shea, Quinn's deputy chief of staff and a nonvoting member of the CMAP board, said he rejected Bennett's comments. The project was being pushed on its own merits and not by political pressure, O'Shea contended.

Bennett and CMAP's executive director, Randy Blankenhorn, also suggested that IDOT recently began withholding the federal money it funnels to CMAP to pay for everyday operations. They questioned whether that slowdown was payback for the planning agency's lack of support for Illiana.

IDOT currently owes CMAP more than $2.2 million, and the delay is causing a serious cash flow problem for the agency, Blankenhorn said.

Asked by the Tribune for a response, IDOT released letters citing the need for "heightened scrutiny" of invoices as the reason for the delays.

Advocates for the Illiana, several of whom addressed the CMAP board, said the project would bring much-needed economic growth, jobs and relief from truck congestion to Will County roads.

IDOT proposes that the Illiana be built as a toll road under a public-private partnership. Revenue from at least 10,000 trucks a day on the highway -- stemming from the burgeoning intermodal facilities and warehouses in Will County -- would pay for the project, officials believe.

A CMAP report, however, challenges the growth assumptions as well as development potential and mobility benefits. It also raises the concern that taxpayers might be on the hook for $440 million to $1.1 billion to pay for the project if toll revenues fall short.

At one point, Bennett referred to the Illiana as a "highway in nowhereland," but he later apologized for that comment, saying he meant to say "farmland."

On Wednesday, the 10 votes against the Illiana came from Mayor Rahm Emanuel's appointees from the city of Chicago, Lake County, McHenry County and four of five Cook County representatives.

Supporters represented DuPage, Kane/Kendall and Will counties, as well as the remaining Cook County vote cast by Richton Park Village President Richard Reinbold.The DuPage representative, Rae Rupp Srch, former village president of Villa Park, said she was "reluctantly" voting for the project despite several concerns.

In a sign of the Illiana's political sensitivity, Andrew Madigan, the son of House Speaker Michael Madigan and one of Emanuel's appointees, was absent. Andrew Madigan did not respond to a phone call for comment.

In a vote by CMAP's Transportation Committee last week, 10 of that panel's 28 members voted "present" or failed to show up.

An IDOT representative said the agency was disappointed by the CMAP board's decision.

The crucial vote on the Illiana will be taken Oct. 17 by another CMAP governing board, the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee.

The Policy Committee is made up of county board chairmen as well as the heads of mass transit agencies and is chaired by Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider.

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