GREG HINZ ON POLITICS
Federal transit watchdog dings Illiana Expressway
August 01, 2013
The proposed Illiana Expressway in the south suburbs has received an ice-cold initial reaction from the agency that acts as the gatekeeper for federal transportation funds here and likely would have to sign off on the roadway.
In a staff analysis quietly posted on its website earlier this week, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning suggests that the proposed roadway from Interstate 80 in Will County east to Interstate 65 in Indiana will cost significantly more than its backers admit, presents “a high level of (financial) risk” and is inconsistent with public forecasts for future economic and population growth in metropolitan Chicago.
Beyond that, the report says, the project, if completed, is likely to increase gross regional product by a fairly slim $425 million in 2040, barely a fifth of the $2 billion estimated by the Illinois Department of Transportation.
The report still needs to be approved by CMAP’s transportation committee before it’s put out for public comment, and it could later be amended or rejected by CMAP’s board and policy committee, on which IDOT is represented.
Gov. Pat Quinn’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s highly unusual for groups like CMAP to publicly ding a proposed major transportation project. And the report certainly constitutes prime fodder for environmental groups that question the need to further decentralize the metropolitan area via expressway construction in exurban areas.
“CMAP’s analysis makes clear that IDOT has understated the costs and overstated the traffic forecasts and value of the proposed Illiana Expressway,” Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, told me. “IDOT’s proposed Illiana Expressway and financial scheme doesn’t come within 10 country miles of reality. The Illinois public shouldn’t be saddled with the costs of this supposedly privatized tollway that doesn’t make financial sense.”
Building the road has been a top priority for Mr. Quinn, who views it as a way to stimulate growth in the south suburbs and to lever development of a new airport at Peotone on the east end of Will County. But the staff analysis — if upheld — will not help him make that case.
For instance, the 20-page analysis says CMAP staff examined numerous other recently constructed highway projects here and around the country and “all have higher per-lane mile costs” than IDOT estimates for Illiana. In fact, “CMAP was unable to locate an example of a recently constructed highway in the U.S. with lower per-mile costs than IDOT’S cost estimate.”
As a result, the report suggests, the cost of the roughly 47-mile road could substantially surpass the official to $1.25 billion estimate ($950 million of which would come from Illinois, the report says) — and those figures do not include another $1.5 billion needed for work on connecting roads.
NO ‘FREE MONEY’
The report also questions whether partnering with a private firm that would put up all or most of the construction money will work out. “Construction of a new private toll facility also involves a high level of risk for both the public and private sectors,” it says. “There is no ‘free money’. . . . (P)rivate partners will require a reasonable rate of return.”
In an email, an IDOT rep says: “The Illinois Department of Transportation strongly believes in the importance of this project and we are committed to this creative way of financing it. The department determined an initial estimate and the final estimate will not be determined until after further analysis and negotiations in this public-private partnership occur. We will continue to work with our partners to get this project completed at the lowest possible cost.
Another finding of the report is that IDOT assumes much greater economic growth over coming decades than it does. And all of the official cost and revenue estimates to date assume the road would be untolled when, in fact, tolls may be imposed that would affect usage of both the Illiana and other roads.
CMAP’s spokesman declined further comment on the proposal, saying it is a work in progress. But it will be fascinating to see if the agency actually sticks to its guns and resists pressure to give the project a pass. That’s what usually happens in Illlinois.
Even if the project was 100 percent privately financed, it still would need CMAP approval because the project would be of regional significance, and because it would need federal environmental clearance.
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