Bulldozing the Rights of the People: That’s the Illiana Way

Remember the Prairie Parkway? Just a few years ago, it was the Big New Road Project of choice in northeastern Illinois. A monumentally dumb idea for a whole host of reasons, the Prairie Parkway fortunately fizzled after the recession of 2008 (though old road projects are rather like zombies that can’t be killed once and for all).

The new road of the day is the much ballyhooed Illiana Expressway, which will link the booming metropolises of Lowell, IN, and Wilmington, IL, and in the process pave over a lot of high-quality Midwestern farmland. But the Illiana isn’t a gentle zombie that plods along with a vacant stare. No, this road monster is pure evil, and it’s coming after us with ferocious speed.

Map of proposed routes for the Illiana Expressway (source: IDOT)

Local politicians and IDOT officials claim we need the Illiana to divert truck traffic from I-80 and US-30; support the burgeoning warehouse/distribution center district in central Will County; provide east-west highway access to the yet-to-be-built (or even approved) Peotone Airport; and create jobs.

I’m all for more jobs, especially if they’re permanent ones that pay a living wage with benefits and occur in an environment that does not tolerate sexual harassment of workers. (This, Joliet-area readers know, is not always the case with the warehouse/distribution industry here in Will County.) But the traffic relief  argument smells fishy to me, since this always ends up being, well, a red herring. Remember how I-355 was supposed to relieve traffic on I-55 and 294? Last time I drove those interstates, they were still among the most traffic-choked in the region.

The Peotone Airport reference is the really big red flag, though. Right now, legal but unethical eminent domain proceedings are being wielded by IDOT against Will County landowners unwilling to give up their land for this Great Imaginary Airport that no airline supports.

Now the Illinois legislature has approved “quick-take” powers for IDOT to seize more private property for the Illiana Expressway, an action that should outrage you, fellow citizens. Why?

Start with the gross injustice here. Quick-take allows the state to simply declare it wants a piece of property, then take it. The process is nice and quick — hence the name — and conveniently circumvents the normal eminent domain process (itself hardly benign) by which citizens may take the state to court to fight the condemnation or haggle over a selling price once their property is condemned.

Secondly, the road has no funding. The only money that’s been allocated thus far for the Illiana is $9 million for several years’ worth of environmental impact and planning studies. Projected unfunded construction costs include over $3 billion for the Illinois section alone.

Will County farmland just south of Joliet, June 2006 (M. Bryson)

Finally, and mostly absurdly, IDOT hasn’t decided where the road will go. Right now two different routes for the Illiana are being evaluated (along with, ironically, a “no-build” option to appease malcontents like me). How in the world can IDOT condemn property under quick-take if an official route hasn’t yet been chosen and approved? Does this strike anyone else besides me as completely illogical?

Perhaps this is root of the problem. When it comes to phantom roads and imaginary airports, there are no ethics or logic operating in Springfield.

The road monsters are coming, people. It’s quick-take season now. Better get out of the way, or you’ll get run over.

This essay is a revised version of my op-ed column that appeared in today’s Joliet Herald-News as “Illiana Bulldozing Rights of Citizens in Its Path.” Though I’m not a transportation / planning expert, I tend to think we have plenty of roads in Illinois already. I also appreciate the fact that my Joliet residential street was repaved last week; notably, no new roads were created in that stimulation of the local economy.

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