Early Illiana Backer Reverses Course On Project

Once a proponent of Illinois-Indiana toll road, Chicago real estate executive now says proposed route is wrong, not worth the expense.

Add to the list of people who oppose the controversial Illiana tollway: Paul Fisher, one of the guys who pushed the idea in the first place.

While there are other detractors around the proposed 47-mile road south of Chicago into Indiana, Fisher’s distaste for the project is notable since the real estate executive was an early advocate for building it.

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In fact, the retired CEO and co-founder of industrial real estate firm CenterPoint Properties was instrumental in moving the project forward several years ago. The east-west Illiana was expected to benefit CenterPoint’s 6,500-acre train-to-truck freight operations in Joliet and Elwood.

Now, the Illinois portion of the proposed route is placed too far south of Chicago to reduce congestion in the area around the CenterPoint cargo operations and Interstate 80, Fisher said. He said he also was disillusioned with the Illiana plan when Indiana officials failed to support extending the road across that state (the road, as now proposed, would extend through Will County farmland west of Interstate 55 in Illinois to Interstate 65 in northwest Indiana. The price tag for the Illinois portion of the road is at least $1 billion, estimates show.)

"When the routing got changed, my reaction is ‘What’s the point?’" Fisher said. "What emerged over the years was a truncated plan further south."

Fisher said his opinion of the road plan turned even more negative after the staff of the regional planning group Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) reported last year that Illiana would cost Illinois taxpayers potentially more than $1 billion while doing little to reduce congestion. After a bruising internal battle, a CMAP panel this month approved Illiana’s inclusion on a list of high-priority transportation projects. The approval is the subject of a lawsuit contesting the process that allowed Illiana on the priority list. Even if the project remains on that list, additional government approval is still necessary for construction to move forward, as well as the identification of funding sources.

The Illinois Department of Transportation, which would help spearhead any work, believes the impact on taxpayers would be much less than what CMAP asserts. IDOT says Illiana’s proposed route took into account environmental and residential impact, cost and other factors.

"The location of the current route showed the best balance of meeting travel needs while also minimizing impacts," an IDOT spokesman said.

A number of Chicago-area politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, oppose the road. Preckwinkle said IDOT is underestimating the costs of the Illiana and the project potentially sucks scarce government dollars from other infrastructure plans.

Gov. Pat Quinn touts Illiana as an economic development plan and an opportunity to find a private investor to bear construction costs. The private operator would be attracted by the prospect of toll revenue, officials say. Quinn’s opponent in the governor’s race, Bruce Rauner, will only say that the Illiana is a potentially big economic growth catalyst for Will County but he has reservations about the cost to taxpayers if toll revenue doesn’t meet expectations.

IDOT, which is overseen by Quinn, also cites the need to improve traffic flow, reduce congestion and help freight move more efficiently in the area being studied for the Illiana. There were almost 90,000 daily truck trips in the area during 2010, a number that will almost triple in 30 years, according to a state consultant’s report.

Other road projects would more effectively reduce congestion in the Chicago area, according to the analysis by CMAP’s staff last year.

PaulSFisher suppliedFromCenterPoint
Paul S. Fisher / CenterPoint Properties

Fisher said Illiana potentially takes money from other infrastructure projects, and he said he agrees with a CMAP staff analysis that found the high tolls (necessary to keep the road maintained) would discourage drivers from using it.

"As CEO [of CenterPoint], it was a project I lost interest in," Fisher said. "I didn’t think it was viable. We turned our interest to other areas."

CMAP planners "modeled out and they think no one will use it," said Fisher, who retired from CenterPoint last year.

"We stepped away from it because we just didn’t see that a tolling scheme covered the cost of it. Where is the money going to come from?"

Fisher, who chairs a new civic group known as Supply Chain Innovation Network of Chicago, said better options for improving transportation include dedicated truck lanes on existing roads and better rail access to O’Hare Airport.

CenterPoint officials declined to comment.

To be sure, the Illiana still has ardent defenders. If the road isn’t built, freight transportation jobs will leave the state, according to James Sweeney, president of the 23,000-member International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 in Countryside.

"Those jobs will never come back," Sweeney, who represents members who would be put to work building the road, said in a statement. "That is the cost of inaction."

Fisher, who initially worked with Sweeney to promote Illiana, disagrees. While both say that a new truck route south of Chicago is needed, Fisher said he doesn’t think Illinois officials are pursuing the best route.

Besides Will County politicians, the major backers of the project are unions, including Local 150. Some of the most vocal proponents are south Cook County politicians and pastors, who feel the road is a stepping stone toward building a south suburban airport to bring jobs to distressed areas with high poverty rates and unemployment.

The tollway and airport are necessary to help bring jobs to hard-hit south suburbs, such as Dixmoor, Harvey, Markham and Robbins, said the Rev. David Bigsby, a Lansing pastor.

"We are literally on death row in the south suburbs," said Bigsby, an activist who said he regularly meets with IDOT officials. He sees the road as a step toward eventually building the airport.

"Now it is our time," said state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields), echoing the sentiment of many of her south suburban Cook County constituents. "We really need to invest in this part of the state."

Hutchinson, who sponsored the Illiana legislation that allows for a public-private partnership to pay for road construction, sees the road and the airport as major job creators.

This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase. He can be reached at (312) 821-9033 or bchase@bettergov.org.