Crain’s: Howard Learner Warns “Devil in the Details” of Rauner’s New I-55 Toll Lane Plan

Gov. Bruce Rauner today floated a plan to add a pair of lanes, likely with tolls, to crowded Interstate 55 (the Stevenson Expressway) between I-355 (Veterans Memorial Tollway) and I-90/94 (the Dan Ryan Expressway).

Though the proposal needs approval by the highly polarized General Assembly, one key Democratic lawmaker threw his backing behind the plan, perhaps a sign that something actually will occur.

Specifically, Rauner announced his legislative allies have filed legislation to allow the Illinois Department of Transportation to negotiate a deal with an as-yet-unspecified private group, known as a public-private partnership, to study options for the Stevenson. Among those options are tolls that would go up or down depending on the time of day, a strategy known as congestion pricing.


The goal is to add at least one lane in each direction on a 25-mile stretch of road that now carries an average of 170,000 vehicles a day. Not yet determined is whether the lanes will be tolled or free, or express toll lanes. But it’s hard to imagine a private company would be interested in fronting the hundreds of millions of dollars likely needed without the promise of a revenue stream.

For the state, a public-private partnership could allow it to do work that Illinois can’t afford, with lawmakers reluctant to raise gasoline or other taxes for the state’s road construction fund.

“Managed lanes are truly an expressway within an expressway, one more option that will make travel more convenient,” said IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn.

Blankenhorn previously headed the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, a government group which has strongly backed the idea of using the Stevenson as a public-private partnership model. CMAP’s current executive director, Joe Szabo, promptly endorsed Rauner’s idea, saying in a statement, “Although new to our region, congestion pricing has been used successfully in the U.S. since 1995, with more than two dozen instances where it is being deployed to give drivers better choices for getting around.”

Such systems are common in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in particular, with freeways and tollways running parallel to each other.

But CMAP has been a vigorous opponent of another public-private partnership project, the proposed Illiana Corridor, saying the expressway would be an economic boondoggle.

That suggests that though Rauner’s plan got some immediate backing from Illinois Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, legislators ought to ask some tough questions.

A 2011 state law allows IDOT to build, finance, operate and maintain highway projects using a public-private partnership model, so long as the Legislature adopts a resolution in favor of the project. The General Assembly’s two GOP leaders, Sen. Christine Radogno and Rep. Jim Durkin, appeared with Rauner at a news conference today and are backing such a resolution.

IDOT says using a public-private partnership model could allow it to save up to $425 million in construction costs. Work could begin as soon as next year and be completed by 2019.

Update, 4 p.m. — A sign that Rauner’s proposal might face some headwinds is coming from Howard Learner, head of Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“When it comes to these types of P3 deals, the devil is in the details,” Learner says in a statement. “We need to make sure that the public is truly receiving its fair share of the benefits, and that the private investors are assuming their fair share of financial risks as well as potential rewards. The Illiana Tollway is an unfortunate example of a poorly designed P3 that imposes much too much financial risk on the public.”

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Breaking News: The Illiana Tollway is Ditched by Governor Rauner and IDOT

Governor Rauner and the Illinois Department of Transportation just axed the proposed Illiana Tollway boondoggle. This is great news for Illinois taxpayers, sound regional planning and protecting the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Today, the Governor issued a press release announcing that the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) will “remove the [Illiana Tollway] project from its current multi-year plan” and “begin the process of suspending all existing project contracts and procurements.”

This is a big victory for Illinois’ fiscal good sense and Illinois’ environment. Let’s focus resources on better solutions for Will County.

Thank you for your thousands of petition signatures and letters to Gov. Rauner and other policymakers. The boondoggle proposed new Illiana Tollway is being ditched — as it should be. The Environmental Law & Policy Center and our allies Midewin Heritage Association, Openlands and the Sierra Club are proud of our very hard and effective advocacy work.

Greg Hinz: Proposed “Illiana” Expressway Diverts Funding from Higher Priority Projects

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) will soon decide the fate of the proposed “Illiana” expressway connecting I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana.  If approved, the project would be one of the largest public infrastructure projects undertaken in the region in over 50 years. But planners and environmentalists argue that critical transportation funding could be better spent on maintaining existing roadways.

According to Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business, this “expressway project that has been solidly dinged by environmental groups as promoting ’70s-style exurban sprawl, and by planning groups as an unaffordable boondoggle that never will pay for itself and risks pulling precious transportation dollars from other, much higher priority projects in Chicago, DuPage County and other portions of the traditional metro area.”  Read the rest of Hinz’s blog.

CMAP’s Transportation Committee is expected to vote Friday morning on whether to recommend the project to the full CMAP Policy Committee; that committee will vote on the project on Oct. 17th.

Crain’s Chicago Business: Federal transit watchdog dings Illiana Expressway



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.


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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