Perspective: Full steam ahead with the Illiana Expressway
The recent decision by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to reject the Illiana Expressway project — a decision rooted in regional bias rather than sound strategic planning — belies the realities of the future transportation needs of the Chicagoland area. The truth is the Illiana Expressway is a much needed thoroughfare that will alleviate congestion on the region's roadways and strengthen Illinois' economy by creating tens of thousands of jobs.
For far too long, Chicago's south suburbs have been the stepchildren of so-called regional planners. This predisposition to dismiss the needs of the Southland is what is really driving the pushback against the Illiana. But make no mistake, we need this road.
Will County is one of the fastest growing regions in Illinois and the Midwest, growth fueled in part by a booming intermodal industry. Will County is home to some of the largest and fastest-growing distribution centers in the nation, serving as a hub for companies such as Target, Wal-Mart, Macy's and Home Depot. And given its unique proximity to all of the nation's major railroads and its abundance of open space, Will County's intermodal industry will continue to grow as global businesses expand their operations in this new inland port. This expansion, in turn, will create new jobs — more than 9,000 construction jobs and 28,000 long-term jobs as a result of the Illiana. While it's clear that I stand in strong support of the Illiana, I also believe it necessary to dispel some of the rumors circulating and contributing to the unwarranted opposition to the project.
First, the Illiana is economically viable despite claims to the contrary. Will County is teeming with more than enough residents and businesses to support and justify the construction of the expressway. And the Illiana has the strong support of political, labor and business leaders from south Cook, Will and Kankakee counties due to the potential for tremendous economic growth in the region. I don't have to tell you how rare it is that a group as diverse as this stands united in support of a single project.
Second, the Illiana will not — I repeat — will not take money away from other transportation projects. The project will be financed through a public-private partnership that will expedite construction of the expressway while reducing costs.
Finally, to those who claim that the Illiana doesn't fit into the region's long-term transportation plan, I say not true. In fact, the project is a perfect fit for the regional transportation plan known as GO TO 2040, designed to coordinate and prioritize regional needs so that our roads and rails are best positioned to move people and products efficiently. Specifically, GO TO 2040 calls for what it describes as "targeted expansion" of the surface transportation network. This is the very definition of the Illiana.
The Illiana targets Will County's intermodal and logistics industries by providing a second major east-west corridor through Chicago's Southland.
It is aimed at relieving congestion on overburdened county and secondary roads in Will County and along I-80, one of the nation's busiest highways. It will take advantage of the region's many rail yards and distribution hubs and will someday serve as an access route for downstaters traveling to the new South Chicago airport.
In short, the Illiana is smart planning for today — and for 2040. The expressway will create jobs, promote community and economic development and reduce congestion on the region's roads, reducing commute times and improving the overall quality of life in the south suburbs.
Few would dispute that the Southland is often the last to get new infrastructure. And when we finally do get a new infrastructure project we often have to finance it ourselves. This is the case despite the decades of largely taxpayer-supported transportation projects built in other areas of the Chicagoland region, from Metra expansions to the new expressways and tollroads crisscrossing the north, northwest and west suburbs.
When it comes time to build down south — as it was with the proposed Metra SE Service Line and the third airport — "regional leaders" from other areas say we don't need the Illiana or that we can't afford it. It's funny that it's "we" when they are looking to poke holes in plans for progress in the Southland but when the Southland finds a way to move forward anyway, what do we hear instead? "You're on your own."
This familiar scenario is not fair, not equitable and runs counter to the regional thinking these leaders profess to believe in. Simply put: A strong south suburban region means a stronger Chicagoland and a stronger Illinois. It's not us versus them. We're all in this together.
And if we're willing to foot the bill ourselves, why not allow us to build the Illiana by adding it to the GO TO 2040 plan? We in the Southland deserve the respect of being able to determine the direction of our economic future on our own dime.
For decades, the Southland has been a team player when other regions wanted new roads. Now it's time for the rest of the team to get off the bench to support us. The Metropolitan Planning Organization should approve construction of the Illiana Expressway.
Rep. Robin L. Kelly represents the 2nd Congressional District of Illinois.