Process for Illiana inclusion in GO TO 2040 highlights benefits of regional planning and open dialogue - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Process for Illiana inclusion in GO TO 2040 highlights benefits of regional planning and open dialogue

CMAP

The Illiana, which will stretch 47 miles from I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana, was approved for inclusion in GO TO 2040 on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) guided a data-driven evaluation of the Illiana Expressway, creating an important precedent for future tough decision facing this region. The debate over the relative merits of the expressway was encouraging because it shows that the region has the capacity to have a reasoned conversation about competing investment priorities. Despite significant controversy, CMAP's process produced a debate that, in the end, was healthy for our region.

After extensive research and thoughtful consultation with stakeholders, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) was the first to release a critical examination of the reported advantages of the Illiana Expressway, which is planned to extend from I-55 to I-65 through Will County in the far southern section of the Chicago region. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) submitted the highway proposal to the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) for inclusion in GO TO 2040, our region's official plan. The 11-8 vote this week by the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) policy committee approved the addition of the project to the GO TO 2040 regional plan.

For the first time in recent memory, the Chicago region engaged in an open and educational discussion about a billion-dollar investment. People from affected communities, employers, labor groups, environmental organizations and numerous other interested parties participated in the debate. This process shone a bright light on the importance of regional planning and the coordinated growth strategies endorsed by GO TO 2040. This is an exciting change—and we must continue to participate in these discussions, no matter how difficult they may be.

Past investment choices often have been made on the basis of political whims, but the trimmed-down reality of transportation funding simply does not allow for that kind of haphazard decision making. Revenue assumptions cannot simply be tweaked to fit additional investments into a fiscally constrained project list, while other, sorely needed highways and transit lines are downsized or removed to accommodate a quid pro quo.

In the past, that approach produced half-funded projects that languished as dollars proved elusive. Fortunately, our region has left that approach behind. GO TO 2040 has accomplished more than anyone could have expected in five short years. Of the five major capital projects that we prioritized as a region, four are moving forward. That is a great start. We need more of that focus as we advance toward the shared goal of a more livable, economically dynamic Chicago region.

Through the Illiana project, our region has opened up a line of dialogue around tough choices needed to meet our aggressive regional goals, such as doubling transit ridership by 2040 and directing the majority of future growth to already developed locations. Now we must come together and continue to evaluate projects based on data, being realistic as we make difficult decisions about how to invest our extremely limited capital resources. As importantly, robust performance measures were used to evaluate the Illiana, including environmental impact, job creation and population and employment shifts. This robust evaluation framework is the new norm for decisions about all infrastructure investments in the region and state.

When CMAP was created through the merger of the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS) and the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC) eight years ago, many raised concerns. Some worried about how it would affect local priorities, but the evaluation of the Illiana has highlighted that all parts of the region deserve a voice in large investment decisions. What happens in one county impacts each of the others—and GO TO 2040 recognizes this fact. IDOT and CMAP provided a productive framework for facilitating this discussion, offering several lessons learned and charting a way forward for investments regionwide.

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