Defunct epxy project predated proposed railway

The controversial proposed project to build an Interstate road connecting I-55 to an Interstate in Indiana recently was dealt what many consider to be a death blow.

One expert said that while the so-called Illiana Expressway project still could be revived, neither the State of Illinois nor the federal government seems to have much interest in doing so.

Earlier this month, a federal judge reinforced an earlier ruling declaring the Tier 2 environmental impact study (EIS) — the last step before the project can begin — on the proposed Illiana Expressway invalid. The ruling means Illinois must start its environmental reviews all over again.

The ruling was seen by opponents as the end of the public-private partnership, but University of Illinois-Chicago Urban Transportation Center Director P.S. Sriraj said it’s more about the state’s financial mess.

“An EIS doesn’t take too long to do from scratch, so from the purely technical perspective, I don’t think that it’s that big of a blow,” he said.

“It’s that the fiscal situation is not appealing for any new endeavors to be taken on unless there is very conclusive evidence that this is going to be benefiting a very large group of people.”

Sriraj said the state would have to rely heavily on federal funding to pay for the road, but that “there’s 100 other Illianas that are competing for that same money.”

Frank Patton, the man behind the proposed Great Lakes Basin railway that would intersect Winnebago County on the south and west sides of Rockford, was a proponent of the Illiana Expressway project before turning his attention to rail. The almost glacial-like pace of development of the Illiana roadway drove he and other investors to look abroad for other transportation projects.

Patton reportedly began work on the railway project in 2009 as delays continued to hamper progress on the Chicago Southland bypass route.

“I looked at Ed Paesel (executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association) and said, ‘Does [a railway] make any sense?’” Patton told the Northwest Indiana Times earlier this year. “And Ed looked at me and he smiled and he said, ‘It makes all the sense in the world.’ And that’s when it started.”

The Illiana Expressway’s development history dates back to the early-1900s when city planners Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett included an “Outer Encircling Highway” into their model for the future of Chicago.

The I-294 Tri-State Tollway and the I-355 spur have served to fill the original role of the proposed connector, but as urban sprawl swallowed up more and more farmland nearer Cook County, both roads became just another portion of the maze of roads the traverse the Chicagoland area.

The Illiana Expressway would have connected I-55 near the Joliet Arsenal in Illinois with I-65 just south of Crown Point, Indiana, about 15 miles from the current route of I-80/94 around the end of Lake Michigan.

Will County Board member Judy Ogalla, who has long opposed the highway, said it would have damaged the agricultural community in her county, slowing a major economic engine for the area.

“It’s more than just the impact of the environment. It’s the farm communities here that live off of the land that they would be paving over. But they never thought about that. No one thought about the hardships of the community,” she said.

A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation said the project has been formally suspended.

–Staff reports & Illinois News Network

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