Illinois taxpayers spent $112,500 last year for a study to determine whether the proposed Illiana toll road would qualify for a key federal construction loan. But then-Gov. Pat Quinn didn’t get the answer he was looking for, and the information ended up in a drawer, or a wastebasket, or something.
This came to light thanks to reporting from Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Hinz obtained a copy of a contract under which Fitch Ratings would be paid up to $125,000 to conduct the review, which was done in the spring of 2014.
Officials at the Illinois Finance Authority told Hinz that the finding was negative and that Fitch had submitted a bill for $112,500.
So hey, let’s see what Fitch had to say about the Illiana, a project regional planners have already warned would require hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.
Sorry, folks. The Illinois Department of Transportation says it never got anything on paper. The analysis “was provided verbally,” an agency spokesman said, and IDOT moved on to researching other financing options without requesting any documentation. Clearly, the Illiana’s cheerleaders had already heard more than they wanted.
There are plenty of other people, though, who would like to know how Fitch arrived at its conclusion. The rating company’s reasoning and the numbers behind it would have been of great interest, for example, to members of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning board when it voted in September on a four-year update to the region’s master plan.
A year earlier, the CMAP board had voted not to add the Illiana to its priority list of projects vying for federal transportation dollars, but it was overruled by a policy committee chaired by Quinn’s IDOT secretary.
Some board members wanted to reverse that decision when it came time to vote on the four-year update. Once again, the policy committee bigfooted the CMAP board. Nobody confessed that IDOT’s financing plan for the Illiana had recently been shot down by the Fitch study.
The Illiana has never made sense financially. A joint project of the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation, the proposed 50-mile toll road would connect I-55 in Will County with I-65 in Lake County, Ind. To appeal to Southland voters, Quinn pitched it as an economic engine that would drive development and create thousands of jobs.
The Illiana is meant to provide an alternative for the trucks now clogging I-80. But they’d have to detour 10 miles out of their way and pay tolls of $50 or more.
It’s billed as a public-private partnership, but investors balked at the risk. So the states agreed to a plan under which the private vendor would get paid regardless of how much traffic (or toll revenue) the road generates. Who’d make up the difference? Taxpayers.
The CMAP staff’s 2013 analysis warned that taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $1.1 billion over 35 years. It also said the advertised economic benefits were “unsubstantiated.”
IDOT insisted the numbers would work but never showed its math, saying that to do so would compromise negotiations with the still-unnamed private partner.
But IDOT was counting on a low-cost loan available under the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA. That’s the loan Fitch Ratings said likely would not fly.
Why not? IDOT’s spokesman would say only that it was based on “the state’s overall financial situation.” That’s all he knows. There’s nothing in writing.
And that’s too bad, because you know who else might like to see the numbers behind that decision? Gov. Bruce Rauner. Because for some reason, Rauner hasn’t yet driven a stake through the heart of this moneysucking loser of a project.
IDOT spent $40 million on planning for the Illiana before the 2013 CMAP vote, which authorized another $80 million for engineering and land acquisition. Last year, IDOT signed an agreement committing Illinois taxpayers to “a minimum” of $250 million upfront to help that private partner build the toll road.
When Quinn lost the election, we thought Rauner would quickly stop wasting money on this project. He’s still thinking about it.
Maybe the research underlying that Fitch finding would persuade Rauner that it’s time for Illinois to cut its losses. It’s too bad there’s nothing to show him except that $112,500 invoice.