New Study: Traffic Data Does Not Support Spending on Illiana Expressway

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Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

Illiana an example of waste, based on outdated assumptions

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

A new report by Illinois PIRG Education Fund calls the Illiana Expressway one of 11 examples of wasteful highway spending based on its outdated assumptions of ever-increasing driving. The study, which details ten other highway “boondoggles” across the country, demonstrates that projections supporting the Illiana predict driving to increase by .92% per year from 2010 to 2040, while actual driving increased by less than half of that in the last decade and has been decreasing since 2010. The study calls for decision makers to reprioritize scarce transportation dollars to other projects.

“Americans have been driving less, but state and federal governments are still spending billions of dollars on highway expansion projects based on outdated and obsolete assumptions,” said Abe Scarr, Director of the Illinois PIRG Education Fund. “The time has come to shift our resources to invest in 21st century priorities, like fixing our roads and bridges and providing more Americans with a wider range of transportation choices.”

The Illiana Expressway has been a controversial project for several years. In order to qualify for key federal funding, it must be included as a priority project in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s (CMAP) GOTO 2040 plan. While the CMAP Board voted against the Illiana last year, the project is still in the GOTO 2040 plan because of a vote by Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee.  The two boards have a joint meeting on October 8th when they will vote to approve the GOTO 2040 plan.

“New road projects like the Illiana are pitched to rural communities like mine under the guise of economic development,” said Will County Board Member Judy Ogalla, “when in reality they often fail to deliver. Many small communities either continue as they are after the roads are built or worse they lose any potential growth they might of had due to loss of tax dollars and the ability to draw new residents to their communities.”

The report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasteful Spending and America’s Future,” notes that the Illiana Expressway is based on the presumption that traffic in the 18 county region affected by the road will increase by .92% annually between 2010 and 2040, as measured in total vehicle miles traveled (VMT). However, that is more than double the annual rate of increase from 2001 and 2010 (.42%). And, since 2010, VMT in the region has been down .49% annually. The Iliana is projected to cost anywhere between $1.3 to $2.8 billion, and Illinois taxpayers would be on the hook for anywhere between $690 million to 1.35 billion of the costs.

“Illinois should ‘fix it first’ by prioritizing road funds to repair the potholed roads, troubled bridges and aging highways that people do use instead of building costly new roads to nowhere, like the proposed Illiana Tollway,  driven by political clout,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “Illinois and other Midwest states should also prioritize investments to improve modern higher-speed passenger rail and better public transit service that efficiently meets the growing public travel demands.

With limited resources dedicated to repair, Illinois has 2,275 bridges that engineers have deemed “structurally deficient,” according to the most recent (2013) National Bridge Inventory tabulated by the Federal Highway Administration (See “All Bridges” linked here). 

“Why should Illinois prioritize spending on this highly questionable highway expansion while more than 2,000 bridges remain structurally deficient and other more deserving projects are ignored?” asked Scarr.