By Austin Berg
It may be the only statewide issue that fiscal conservatives, Chicago politicians, environmentalists, urban planners, legacy media and transportation experts can all agree on: The Illiana Expressway is a bad idea.
After the Illinois General Assembly handed Gov. Bruce Rauner a state budget that was nearly $4 billion out of balance, he announced a number of cuts on June 3 in an attempt to close the gap – one of which was suspending the Illiana project, as he ordered the Illinois Department of Transportation, or IDOT, to strike it from the agency’s plans.
The move will yield more than $100 million in state savings next year, according to IDOT documents.
The Illiana was built upon faulty assumptions, and motivated largely by crony intentions.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn sold the 50-mile tollway, which would run from I-55 in Will County, Illinois, to I-65 in Lake County, Indiana, as an economic-development project. Its stated goal was to reduce regional congestion by providing an alternative route to I-80.
The Illiana also served as a veiled effort to make a long-discussed airport in Peotone a more attractive idea to investors and the public.
But transportation experts predicted the Illiana would “eat itself,” as planners had vastly overestimated the growth in vehicle miles over the next 30 years in the rural, sparsely populated area, and the tolls charged could have reached as much as four times more than other Illinois tollways, further driving down the number of users.
Taxpayers were to be on the hook for underperformance, as regional planners estimated they would foot as much as $1.1 billion in additional subsidies over the life of the project, which was to be managed by a private company.
But Rauner’s suspension of the project doesn’t kill Illiana just yet.
As Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business points out, since the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency included the project in its Transportation Improvement Program – at Quinn’s behest – the road is still entitled to federal funding.
The governor should drive a stake in Illiana by ordering the sale of land bought for the project. The state has spent $61 million on planning and land acquisition for Illiana, according to the Chicago Tribune.
An expensive public project making it easier for Illinoisans to migrate to Indiana is a perfect case study in why people are leaving the state in droves. Ending the Illiana boondoggle is a sensible step toward a balanced budget.