Chicago Transit Agencies Vote for a Tollway Even the Road Lobby Hates

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IDOT moving full steam ahead on unneeded road building in Illinois. Photo: straightedge217.

Chicago-area transportation organizations are poised to shoot themselves in the foot and harm the region by allowing the Illinois Department of Transportation Department to squander limited transportation infrastructure funds on the $2.75 billion Illiana Tollway. On Friday the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s transportation committee voted to recommend moving forward with this wasteful, destructive project, which promises to suck jobs from Illinois and send them to Indiana. It would create only 940 new jobs over the next thirty years.

Representatives of Metra and Pace, plus Steve Schlickman of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center (possibly motivated by fear of losing state funding), voted yes on an advisory motion to include the Illiana Tollway in the fiscally constrained projects list for CMAP’s GO TO 2040 regional plan. This would allow the highway project to compete for the same small pots of money that fund the transit agencies’ maintenance and expansion projects, as well as research and planning studies.

Max Muller, the Active Transportation Alliance’s director of government relations, was perplexed by the vote. “It makes as much sense as the Illiana Expressway proposal itself: none,” he said. Mueller added that the CTA and Metra voted against their own interests and “against a regional plan that prioritizes multimodal transportation and investment in existing infrastructure.”

On Friday, Stacy Meyers, policy coordinator for Openlands, a conservation group that is one of three organizations suing IDOT over the tollway, told the committee members that they would be unwise to support the project — echoing analysis of the Illiana by the Metropolitan Planning Council and CMAP’s own staff. “Your top projects will be deferred, underfunded or dropped, even if you have been told otherwise,” she said. “There simply isn’t enough money to do everything. We can barely cover what we have agreed to build.”

Reps from the CTA, the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Regional Transportation Authority, and other organizations abstained from voting, effectively handing over their votes to IDOT. Unsurprisingly, the three IDOT reps on the committee voted in favor of the project. The rep from the Illinois Tollway Authority also also voted yes, but that’s not surprising either since the commission enjoys a very secure funding mechanism and unwavering support from the governor’s office. In the end the CMAP committee voted 10 to seven in favor of the project.

Counter-intuitively, some of the most incisive criticism of the vote has come from the pro-road construction website Toll Road News, edited by Peter Samuel:

We love cars and roads and especially tollroads and in policy fights like this usually find ourselves on the ‘build-it’ side and against road opponents.

We don’t have much time for planners or reverence for longterm plans. There’s a pretension of extraordinary prescience in any plan for 2040! But they are correct in saying: let’s give priority to solving the problems we know we have now over addressing problems we might or might not have decades ahead.

The Illiana is a very bad road project – quite simply because it will serve so few drivers for the forseeable future, and may never serve sufficient to justify its cost. Resources are better deployed elsewhere.

Meyers also said the Illiana controversy represents a conflict between what the state government wants and what’s actually good for the Chicago area. “[At the center of the debate] is the question of whether our region will stand by the locally-adopted GO TO 2040 plan and rebuff the outside forces of IDOT and the governor who wish to supplant our regional-based values.” When you look at the tollway issue along with IDOT’s fast-tracked $475 million Circle Interchange Expansion project, plus its ban on protected bike lanes on state roads, its clear that IDOT often has a negative influence on Chicagoland transportation planning.

So what if, instead of voting against the region’s and their own interests, Metra, Pace, and the Urban Transportation Center, CDOT, the CTA, and the RTA took a stand by voting against the motion? Smart regional planning would have won by 13 to seven.

Again, this was an advisory vote. The CMAP board will take its own advisory vote this Wednesday morning at 9:30 a.m. at CMAP’s office in in the Sears Tower, 233 South Wacker. You must RSVP to attend. On Thursday, October 17, 3-4 p.m. at Sears Tower, CMAP’s metropolitan planning organization policy committee will take the final vote. Most of the same organizations that voted on Friday to take funding away from transit to pay for this unnecessary, job-sucking tollway will have the opportunity to correct that mistake, because if they do not include the Illiana in GO TO 2040, the project cannot proceed.

Here’s the voting breakdown from Friday:

Organization Vote
Northwestern (urban transportation center) Absent
UIC (urban transportation center) Yes
CMAP Bike/Ped Task Force No
Metropolitan Planning Council No
Center for Neighborhood Technology No
Cook County No
DuPage County Yes
Kane County Yes
Kendall County Absent
Lake County Abstain
McHenry County No
Will County Yes
CDOT Abstain
Council of Mayors No
CMAP No
RTA Abstain
NIRPC (northwestern Indiana MPO) Abstain
SWRPC (southeastern Wisconsin MPO) Absent
IDOT: Division of Public & Intermodal Yes
IDOT: Office of Planning & Programming Yes
Illinois EPA Absent
CTA Abstain
Railroads Absent
IDOT Yes
Tollway Yes
Metra Yes
Pace Yes
Private Providers Absent

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