CHICAGO (AP) – The head of northeastern Illinois' planning agency called Wednesday for an end to Gov. Pat Quinn's push for the Illiana Expressway, saying the proposed $1.3 billion tollway south of Chicago is "a highway in nowhere land."
Gerald Bennett made the remarks before Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning board members voted 10-4 against the project, despite what Bennett said was unfair pressure by Quinn on the board. The agency's policy committee will have the final say in a vote next week. Its approval is needed to open the door to federal funding for the 47-mile tollway between Indiana and Illinois, which the Illinois Department of Transportation says will create jobs and lead to economic development.
"I have never seen so much political pressure put on members of this board in the history of this agency," Bennett said at the board meeting, explaining that some members had expressed private concerns about the potential consequences of voting no.
"They don't want to upset IDOT; they don't want to upset the governor down the road. ... If IDOT refuses to give our towns or area money, so be it," said Bennett, who is also mayor of the southern Chicago suburb of Palos Hills.
Bennett accused the state's Transportation Department of being weeks late with payments to the agency totaling $2.2 million. He says it's no coincidence the delays — the first in years — began in July, after his agency released a negative assessment of the expressway project.
In response, the Transportation Department released a letter that its chief, Ann Schneider, sent to the planning agency Tuesday. It said the delays were the result of increased scrutiny after ineligible items were found in reimbursement claims, including one from the planning agency.
The tollway would cross a rural area south of Chicago, offering cars and trucks an east-west link between Interstate 65 in Indiana and Interstate 55 in Illinois. The two states say construction could start late next year or in the spring of 2015.
Businesses, labor unions and community groups all support the project.
A Baptist minister from Chicago's south suburbs, David Bigsby, was among residents who addressed Wednesday's board meeting, saying the area has been held in an "economic death row."
"I pastor to people who don't have jobs. I pastor to people that are losing homes. I pastor to people that are in despair. This highway gives us some hope," he said.
The governors of both states have touted the project as a way to speed goods by truck, reduce congestion and create thousands of jobs. Illinois hopes to lure private investors to put up some of the cost of building, operating and maintaining the road in a 35-year deal. Tolls would help repay the debt.
But in an analysis released in September, the planning agency concluded the route's traffic and tolls would fall short, leaving taxpayers on the hook for anywhere from $440 million to $1.1 billion.
Agency staffers also concluded that because of the corridor's location 10 miles south of built-up areas on the edge of suburban Will County, it would have minimal impact on any economic development or long-term job creation beyond the workforce needed to build it.
"We're not sure how building a roadway that ... is going to be built for vehicles and trucks to go around them, how that creates jobs for those communities," the planning agency's executive director, Randall Blankenhorn, told reporters after the vote.
Environmental groups also oppose the project, saying it would threaten endangered wildlife, critical habitat and other sensitive areas.
Schneider gave interviews to news outlets Monday to counter opponents. She said the state's adviser on the project, Ernst & Young, found toll revenues would top the costs of operating and maintaining the road, providing the state with money to invest in other transportation work.
The transportation chief also said the road was important to staying competitive.
"A lot of people, what they don't realize is that right now we are in competition for being a freight hub with places like Memphis, Tenn.; Columbus, Ohio," she told The Associated Press.
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.