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Rauner's Freeze On Illiana Expressway Could Be A Progressive Bright Spot Amid Budget Cuts

By Rachel Cromidas in News on Jun 6, 2015 7:00PM

At last, a Gov. Bruce Rauner budget decision that some are hailing as a progressive move: Yes, it looks like plans for the Illiana Expressway are being scrapped.

The Illiana is a controversial $1.3 billion, 50-mile tollway in southern Illinois that transportation officials have been planning since 2009. Downstate officials have been proponents of the roadway for its potential to become a new major transit option connecting our state and Indiana and also hail it for the toll revenue it could generate. But others, including the ratings company Fitch, have told the state government it's a bad financial idea.

This week, Rauner heeded those warnings, and quietly placed the Illiana on hold, effective immediately, alongside a laundry list of proposed state budget cuts. Though Rauner has come under fire repeatedly by various groups for his sweeping budget cut proposals since taking office, some progressives are heralding this decision, particularly in the transportation community.

"Ding dong, the Illiana is dead," the Metropolitan Planning Council's Peter Skosey said in a blog post. The transportation news site Streetsblog Chicago called it one of the "most wasteful" roads projects in the country. But Greg Hinz of Crain's Chicago Business is not ready to eulogize it just yet.

The road is still entitled to federal funding as long as it's on the region's Transportation Improvement Program, he writes, and "for now" it's not going anywhere.

Rauner's decision still leaves many open questions about the future of the Illiana and other IDOT projects. For one, the move raises the question of what would happen to the $118 million that IDOT was preparing to promise to the Illiana in its current budget. And to what extent will politics keep the Illiana in play, or scuttle it for good? From Hinz:

"It may be that Rauner doesn't formally want to pull the plug because the road is a nice piece of candy he can dangle by some south suburban lawmakers who may be willing to give him votes on other issues—like his war with House Speaker Mike Madigan—in exchange for keeping the road technically alive."