The Illiana Expressway Will Eat Itself

If you asked me to paint a picture of a highway where no highway should exist, this is the picture I would paint. Image: ##https://pbworld.com/capabilities_projects/illiana_expressway_.aspx##Parsons Brinckerhoff##
The Illiana Expressway fails on all measures — expected revenue, projected traffic — when looked at realistically. Unfortunately, Illinois and Indiana don’t look at it that way. Image: ##https://pbworld.com/capabilities_projects/illiana_expressway_.aspx##Parsons Brinckerhoff##

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. This is the final installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. 

Illinois and Indiana are proposing to build a new highway across the far southern extent of the Chicago metropolitan area at a cost of more than $1 billion and perhaps as much as $3 billion. Intended to divert truck traffic from Interstate 80, the tolls charged to finance the highway could instead discourage trucks from using the roadway.

The proposed Illiana Expressway would extend from I-55 in Wilmington, Illinois, to I-65 in Hebron, Indiana, at the southernmost reach of the Chicago metropolitan area, traversing a largely rural and thinly populated area.

The wisdom of the project has been questioned by staff of the region’s metropolitan planning organization, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which said the project “expose[s] the State of Illinois to extensive financial risk,” even as it offered “unsubstantiated economic development potential” and “negligible impacts on regional transportation performance.”

Further, the staff criticized the planning process for significantly underestimating potential costs — by at least 30 percent and possibly as much as 400 percent, compared to similar highway projects around the country. CMAP staff projections also show an economic impact only one-fifth as large in 2040 as that projected by the highway’s planners.

Despite objections from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the CMAP board’s resounding rejection of the tollway in a 10 to 4 vote, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is proceeding with the tollway on the basis of a vote of approval by CMAP’s policy committee. In October, the CMAP board will consider a regional comprehensive plan that includes the Illiana. Environmental groups have brought a lawsuit challenging IDOT’s continued development of the tollway, alleging that the committee vote violated the required approval process laid out in Illinois law.

Cost estimates for the highway range between $1.3 billion and $2.8 billion if related work on connecting roads is included. Illinois taxpayers are already on the hook for $250 million of that cost, and Indianans will pay an additional $80 million to $110 million, even though the road is set to be built and operated by a private company that will charge tolls and profit from the proceeds.

Those cost numbers are just starting points. To make the project attractive for potential private-sector partners, Illinois taxpayers would have to kick in between $440 million and $1.1 billion in subsidies, and Indiana taxpayers will need to contribute additional amounts. According to CMAP staff, too few details of a proposed public-private partnership are available to make a more precise estimate of the public contribution, but the lower the toll rates will be, the more public support will be needed. This is problematic because higher toll rates will reduce actual use of the road — and therefore reduce the road’s potential benefit to the transportation system.

Traffic projections work their magic yet again. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group
Traffic projections work their magic yet again. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

It is unclear how much demand there actually is from drivers for the new route. The financing of the road is premised on strong and growing toll proceeds, but many drivers — especially truck drivers — avoid toll roads, especially when tolls are high and there are toll-free alternatives. The larger the truck, the more likely it will go elsewhere. At even the lowest level of toll considered by the proposal, more than half the tractor-trailer trucks that would use the road if it were free are expected to avoid it; at the highest considered toll, more than 80 percent will use other roads instead.

Further undermining the arguments for the road’s utility are planners’ traffic projections for the 18-county region that is designated as being affected by the Illiana project. The data show that from 2001 to 2010, the number of vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in the region grew by an average rate of 0.42 percent a year.

But official IDOT projections still anticipate rates of driving increase from the Driving Boom era. IDOT projects that from 2010 to 2040, VMT would grow more than twice as fast as the last decade, at an annual rate of 0.91 percent. So far, since 2010, the region’s VMT has actually dropped by an average rate of 0.49 percent per year.

Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst at U.S. PIRG, and Jeff Inglis, policy analyst at the Frontier Group, are co-authors of the report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.”

  • hello

    This thing can’t be stopped fast enough…unfortunately politcal ambitions get in the way of financial/urban development prudence all to easily – especially when those ambitions are realized using Other People’s Money.

  • C Monroe

    The bankruptcy of the Indiana toll road in the same region and is an alternative to I-80/I-94 should be a wake up call for supporters of this. Another toll road that also diverts traffic from the same highway this toll road is planned to do has filed bankruptcy so lets build another that will be a financial drain.

  • G1991

    Living in highway-obsessed Indiana is a nightmare. Transit (what little of it we are allowed to have, since light rail is banned) and inter-city rail are always considered boondoggles while new freeways, stroads, and freeway widening are justifiable no matter what the cost. Our governor even put together a “panel” made up of owners of trucking companies that proposed a second beltway around Indianapolis while eliminating any state support for public transportation (currently 0.5% of INDOT’s budget). All of this money going to the Illiana Tollway and money that would go to the proposed second belt (which needs to go away quickly) could probably come close to building a high-speed rail line between Indianapolis and Chicago, something that is actually needed. The Indiana Toll Road has been a DISASTER, predictably. What makes any public official think that the Illiana Tollway will be any better is beyond me. There is no sense to it from a planning standpoint and from an economic standpoint.

  • Vic

    The Indiana tolll road goes bankrupt, and the Borman truck traffic increased. Hmmm. Do any of the bureaucrats see the correlation? I guess not. They don’t drive on the expressway of course I’m not gonna see it

  • Fuegofan

    Has no one noticed that this highway would service the proposed airport in Peotone? It’s just another step toward trying to get that other boondoggle built.

  • shayloure

    I’m really not sure how a liberal state like Illinois (comparatively speaking) allowed Indiana to suck it into this idea. After driving miles on end, do they really think that truck drivers are going to use this highway and save a mere 30 minutes instead of using I-80 for free? Come on. The fact that the Indiana legislature had the audacity to ban light rail, so that tax payers wouldn’t be burdened, but rather us spend our $110 million on this highway from nowhere to nowhere is ridiculous. Surely they don’t think actual residents will use it. Won’t really be necessary since the south shore line is expanding rail transit to the southern tip of NWI. I’m pretty sure if they asked us what we’d rather spend our money on, the vast majority of people would say to put that $110 million to improving railroad tracks and Amtrak service on the Hoosier State line corridor. Moving freight and passengers efficiently totally negates the usage or need for this highway.

  • I kind of wonder if Quinn is supporting this project to save his nose to spite his face. He’s so desperate to win over a particular voting block with this ridiculous project that he’ll disparage other voters, not necessarily into voting for Rauner, but not showing up to the polls in the first place. For a governor with pathetically low support, lack of enthusiasm in a non-presidential election year can be killer. The only consolation for Quinn is that Rauner’s approval rating is even lower.

    I’ll be voting but I won’t be voting for Quinn almost entirely as a result of his support for this project.

  • BlueFairlane

    Illinois isn’t a liberal state. It’s a conservative state with a big liberal city. And I’m pretty sure the idea for this thing originated in Illinois, brainchild of the same people who so badly want the Peotone airport.

    This road only saves truckers time in theory, and only if you’re headed in certain directions. It might be useful for people wanting to go from west-bound 80 to southbound 55, or for people headed the other way. For travelers moving east to west along 80, it adds about 40 miles. And it doesn’t even bypass the entire metroplex, as it leaves and reconnects to 80 at two highly congested interchanges.

  • Politics makes odd bedfellows, i believe the quote goes. You have an unpopular governor up for reelection who needs a swing-county and a particular union to support him. Also, Illinois’ state government is pretty awful and is a disservice to both urban and rural areas alike.

  • Last i saw the proposed illiana will have a toll of about $0.38 per mile, this puts the total for a trip along the road at $17.86. At 8 mpg & $3.50/gallon, a truck can drive nearly 40 miles around the illiana before it makes sense to take it. (And 8 mpg is pretty generous for a typical semi, as well.) As you mentioned, the only possible circumstance where using the road makes sense would be a peak rush hour scenario. And even then, the traffic would only be limited to those truckers making a specific trip since using the tollway would take them way out of their way.

  • Paul the Fossil

    It appears that Quinn’s payrollers are scrambling to find a way to ram this thing through despite CMAP finding its spine:
    http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20140930/BLOGS02/140939984/new-intrigue-in-political-war-over-illiana-expressway

    Meanwhile some Republican state reps in Indiana are continuing to push back at their governor on the thing:
    http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/lowell/niemeyer-wants-answers-about-illiana-financial-questions/article_866f0172-a83c-5d69-acd7-af0c7f5a7beb.html

    And grass-roots opponents in both states are planning a media event for October 11th:
    http://www.nwitimes.com/business/transportation/illiana-expressway-opponents-plan-parade-rally/article_65c3b1a8-2812-521d-aae3-e6d665553707.html

  • Coolebra

    Yep, it’s Peotone driving the Illiana, as well. Slight pun intended.

  • Coolebra

    Another step following the footprints already left in I-55’s ROW.

    Has no one noticed . . . that IDOT may have taken an early step toward Illiana construction in 2009 by initiating a study that led to removing the southbound exit for Wilmington off of I-55? It was a study that, oddly enough, found the exit hazardous though they acknowledged their analysis couldn’t prove it. The investment was ultimately made based on little more than what was framed as an educated guess:

    http://www.i-55wilmingtonstudy.com/images/I-55_Purpose%20and%20Need.pdf

    Note that the study predicts nearly a seven-fold increase in ramp volumes at Lorenzo Road, too. From what?? People fishing Heidecke Lake or the Kankakee River?

    Also, what of the project to completely re-do the Arsenal road interchange? Was that level of investment necessary, even considering the CenterPointe inter-modal facility in Elwood?

    Of course, each investment is unrelated to the other – they’re all projects that stand on their own, right?

    Surely the Illiana wasn’t already a done deal.

    After all, there’s a mandatory federal study that needed to be completed before such a decision could be made.

  • C Monroe

    The Cincinnati metro leaders want the high speed line from Cinci/Indy/Chicago.

  • BeeKaaay

    Stop calling it a highway or expressway. It is not free.

    It is a tollway.

    And this project will go through, for the normal reason: $$$MORE MONEY FOR CRONIES$$$

  • BeeKaaay

    I-80 is not free, there is a part that is part of the Illinois Leechway.

  • G1991

    Yes, I’ve been seeing their press releases. A CIN-IND-CHI (and maybe Louisville) high-speed line would be incredibly beneficial. However, the line would be the 110 mph “high-speed,” and that’s if our governor and DOT will get on board. BIG if. I’ll be frank, I’m not a fan of implementing 110 mph lines and calling it good. An effective high-speed rail service (or maglev, depending on one’s views on the way modern inter-city mobility should be implemented) connects cities in a manner that will have a significant impact. Frequent, 150-220+ mph, point to point service with few stops in between and connections to good transit. I see no point in putting money into a 110 mph connection when it will eventually have to be upgraded. Why make the investment twice?

  • hello

    I urge everyone who reads this that lives in the effected (a or e, I can never recall) areas to submit a public comment.

    http://www.illianacorridor.org/get_involved/

  • BlueFairlane

    Affected. Affect is the act of doing something to somebody, of having something done to you. Effect is the thing that is done.

  • Nightowl2548

    Why on earth would anyone take Amtrak or light rail when you can get directly there in your car in a fraction of the time? Who also wants to arrive at a destination and not have the freedom of your own vehicle to make local trips? I flew out to a relative and felt like a hostage in that house with no car to head out for trips to the store, restaurant, or a local attraction. Trying to mimic European rail networks, that don’t work here, is even more of a boondoggle than the Illiana. What is needed is an upgrade and expansion of the Eisenhower Interstate System for the 21st century. An I-480 completely bypassing the south Chicago metro region has been desperately needed for decades. That’s what I want my tax dollars to go to, not the global warming hoax.

  • bolwerk

    Why would anyone want to pay tribute to Ford, GM, Exxon, BP, and the Saudis when you can save hundreds of dollars every month, live car-free, be healthier, refuse to give money to some of the most anti-social people on the planet, and (yes!) improve the environment too? With thinking like that, it’s no wonder highway advocates are associated with some of the most fantastically irrational fiscal policies in the western world.

    That’s what I want my tax dollars to go to….

    Well, kudos to you for at least admitting that, somewhere under your tinfoil hat, you love centralized Big Gubbermint.

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