The local face of opposition to the proposed Illiana tollway received some vindication last week when Gov. Bruce Rauner put the brakes on the project.
Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett, the chairman of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), has long opposed the tollway and took a fair amount of grief last year when he described it as “a road to nowhere.”
That caused the local mayor to take some heat in some circles in Will County and Rauner’s decision helped take him off the hook. He may still be the bad guy to Illiana supporters, but they can now take their frustrations out on Rauner.
Suspending the planning and development of major interstate construction projects was Ruaner’s first act after taking office last week.
Rauner also named Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of CMAP, to lead the Illinois Department of Transportation. Blankenhorn, like Bennett, has long been critical of the Illiana project
Bennett stopped short last week of saying he felt vindicated by Rauner’s decision, but believed the new governor made the right call.
“Governor (Quinn) was determined to push this through,” Bennett said. “I think this project was pushed through politically.”
A Joliet newspaper editorial last year chided Bennett for describing Will County as a “wasteland” and opposing the tollway.
“Palos isn’t so far off from Nowhere Land, either. And surely as president of the Illinois Municipal League, Bennett must have ventured through other parts of the state settled after Lewis and Clark took off,” the paper said.
It added that Bennett, who attended Lewis University in Romeoville, should have been “more well-rounded and take into account the possibility (that) another east-west route through an already busy intersection of two cross-country interstates just might help.”
“CMAP officials have staunchly stuck to their parochial ways of protecting funds for their own projects with little regard for an area for which they have little regard,” the newspaper said.
But Bennett said CMAP had several reasons for opposing the plan, among them cost and a lack of advantages for the region.
“Let’s make sure we build a road that is going to have some impact,” Bennett said.
He added that CMAP seriously doubted that the project, which was described a public-private partnership, would pay for itself. The more likely scenario would find taxpayers holding the bag, especially if estimated toll revenue did not meet expectations, he said.
The proposed 47-mile expressway between Illinois and Indiana was designed to provide an east-west link from Interstate 65 from near Lowell, Indiana, to Interstate 55 near Wilmington in Illinois. The cost of the roadway was estimated at $1.5 billion.
Meanwhile, the estimated cost of the interchange connecting the Tri-State Tollway (Interstate 294) and I-57 in the southwest suburbs is $719 million, Bennett said. That project has a greater impact on the area, he said.
“All the facts (indicated) that the proposal should not be considered as a capital project for the region. It’s in southern Will County,” said Bennett, adding that federal and state transportation funds are limited.
CMAP studies have indicated that tollway would have little impact on nearby highways, reducing by only 10 percent the number of the cars that travel on I-80/94.
Bennett was careful to point out that Rauner’s decision to suspended planning and development of the major interstates does not necessarily kill the Illiana project.
“Nobody has said it’s completely over,” Bennett said.