In a major victory for Gov. Pat Quinn, a key regional planning committee has approved his controversial proposal for a new $1.3 billion toll road that would serve primarily as a trucking corridor linking interstates in Illinois and Indiana.
The Illiana Corridor got the green light Thursday from the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee, which by federal law must sign off on major transportation projects.
Quinn hailed the vote as a major victory for economic development and jobs that he said will strengthen the state's economy.
"I applaud the members (of the planning committee) for making the Illiana a priority," Quinn said. "This regional highway will not only serve the largest- and fastest-growing areas in Illinois, it will have a long-term economic impact of more than $4 billion in the region."
Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider also applauded the outcome but said much work remains over the next year to complete the Illiana's planning and start soliciting bids from private investors who would partner with the state.
"This was just one step in the process, but it was a very big step," Schneider said.
The toll road through Will County would connect Interstate 55 at Wilmington, I-57 near Peotone and I-65 near Lowell, Ind. Supporters said it would create 9,000 short-term jobs and generate thousands more over the next three decades.
In a separate vote, the Policy Committee also gave IDOT the authority to spend more than $80 million for more engineering and land acquisition. IDOT has already spent about $40 million in planning work on the project.
The 19-member committee is made up of county board chairmen and transportation agency representatives from the seven-county area. It approved the project by an 11-to-8 vote.
Opponents made a last-ditch stand against the project.
Virginia Gates-Hamann, who said her family has farmed the Peotone area for generations, said the Illiana will destroy thousands of acres of farmland and the rural quality of life.
"If IDOT paves over this land, it will have (the) same effect as Chernobyl ... poisoning the land," she said.
The committee vote came after nearly three hours of arguments for and against the toll road.
In addition to committee members, some 38 others addressed the panel, including U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, state legislators, local officials, farmers, clergy and representatives of various advocacy groups.
The argument that appeared to carry the day was that IDOT should develop the Illiana as a public-private partnership in which private investors would build and operate the toll road.
Supporters emphasized there is little or no state or federal money available for such a project, unlike previous decades when the federal government poured millions into helping build the region's expressways.
The vote was clearly a disappointment for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the organization created by the legislature to oversee land use and transportation planning for Northeastern Illinois.
In a statement, CMAP's Chairman Gerald Bennett said the "process has been difficult for all concerned and political tensions have strained the regional coalition" that was built when the agency was formed in 2005.
In order for the Illiana to go forward, it needed to be included in CMAP's long-range regional plan, which was approved with the consensus of leaders from the seven-county area three years ago. The vote Thursday was to amend the plan, called GO TO 2040, by including the Illiana on its list of projects.
The Illiana could pose a significant financial risk to the financially struggling state, critics said.
CMAP's analysis showed the Illiana would likely need anywhere from $440 million to $1.1 billion in public funding, and that this money would come at the expense of other projects.
Schneider argued that the project needed to go forward as the state's first public-private partnership, but said if suitable investors are not found, the state will not build the Illiana.