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Will the Illiana expressway have enough traffic to justify its existence?

There are several controversial issues when discussing The Illiana Expressway: whether or not the expressway will have sufficient users; where the funding will be generated from; whether or not the expressway is needed; and destroying farmland along its route.  The idea of an expressway along the southern edge of Lake County did not become apparent until September of 2008 when remnants of Hurricane Ike were intercepted by another storm system and pushed north along the Mississippi and caused flooding in the Midwest, especially on the Calumet River along I80/94.  The pictures that people remember were of I80/94 between the Illinois line and Cline Ave.  The highway looked more like the Calumet River.  While traffic was disrupted for days while the highway dried out, the town of Munster is still recovering a year later.  The Munster community received all of the press, but the Kankakee River also flooded.  Communities along the Kankakee were devastated, and the primary route designated for the new expressway flooded as well. 

The ultimate question is whether or not the expressway will have sufficient users to make it worthwhile. One of the reasons for the expressway is to alleviate the truck traffic on I80/94 and the Indiana Toll Road, both of which have been and will continue to see heavy construction over the next few years, especially around I65.  The route is designated to connect I80/94 at Michigan City to I57 in Will County in Illinois.  The collapse of the I35 Bridge in Minnesota over the Mississippi River in August of 2007 that killed at least 7 people has shown the need for infrastructure work across the nation.   The question of whether or not another major thoroughfare was needed was answered when the Borman Expressway flooded in September of 2008.  Crete Village President Michael Einhorn discussed the issue in an editorial published in the NWI Times on July 07, 2009.  He said that the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) promised funding to begin the process; however, leaders in both states need to get this project past the talking stage.  We need to get moving on this project, either way, before potential highway corridors become new home construction sites.  There has even been discussion of new railways connecting Chicago and LaPorte County with southern Lake, Jasper, and Newton Counties.  As a resident of Lake County, and former resident of Jasper County, this writer understands the need for rail and new highway construction connecting The Calumet Region to Chicago.  At this point, all people want is an answer on this project, either way.

The Dunelands Sierra Club feels differently about the project, however, and believes the Illiana Expressway would take the community in the wrong direction.  Primarily, environmental justice and urban sprawl are the reasons against progress.  “Poor and minority communities will be left further behind as the inner cities and first ring suburbs they live in lose more investment and population. Further sprawl means the jobs, schools, shopping, medical and government services get further away and harder to get to. The public transit that people who don't have cars depend on can't really service sprawling areas, it is not efficient. As it is, there are people riding the buses for 5 hours a day to get from west Gary to Southlake Mall at I-65 and US Rt. 30.”    Of course, a new bussing system has been on the table for the entire region, but that was not discussed by the Sierra Club.  The argument is not regarding whether or not Gary needs infrastructure work, it does, but the need here is to alleviate traffic and commuting problems on I80/94 and the Indiana Toll Road.  The Sierra Club argument does not hold water as the Illiana Expressway will not replace existing roads, but only add to and help make commuting easier between Northern Indiana and Will County in Illinois.  Census Bureau data has shown that more people are moving into Southern Lake County and communities along the Kankakee River. 

According to Sandy O'Brien, Dunelands Sierra Club group chair, the world is changing.  “The necessity of dealing with global warming and the increase in fossil fuel costs as supplies run out is becoming more apparent. The future will most likely be one of lower energy where compact cities and mass transit become very important ways to save energy. Excessive consumption of consumer goods that the proposed new intermodal (train to truck) yards are needed for will end. Wouldn't we be better off with smart growth, fixing the problems in the old cities, and mass transit investment rather than 1950's transportation technology? Transportation problems have land use solutions!”  Is it the opinion and desire of the Dunelands Sierra Club to stop progress?  We need real solutions that can grow with our expanding communities.  We need proven technologies that will grow and help with the issue of climate change.  At this time, technologies that are being pushed as alternatives to fossil fuels are not proven.  It makes more sense to utilize the supplies and technologies that we have while we develop and prove alternatives so that if and when the fossil fuels are depleted, we have the technologies to replace them without question.  The Sierra Club has argued that sprawl is bad for the environment.  With more people moving into the region, one question must be asked: Which is worse?  Centralized high rise apartments and larger, more localized communities, or building attractive communities that residents can be proud of.  Building a new expressway will help people find and maintain jobs.  There will be additional businesses and communities that will be available to the region.  Unemployment has been an issue in the community; especially since the mills have been cutting back.  Yes, increased steel production will help, but unless something can be done to ensure steel production growth, it is only temporary. 

As part of a presentation in southern Indiana in February of 2009, Governor Mitch Daniels said, “Indiana is one of only three states in the country not to experience a shortfall in this current budget year. Indiana stands to get roughly $4.3 billion in federal stimulus money.  Unlike other states, that money isn't needed to fill gaps in spending for the state's programs.  Instead, it will be additional money used to push up timetables for state projects.”  Hopefully, this includes the expressway.  While construction of a new expressway would mean jobs, both construction jobs as well as permanent jobs for the new businesses and intermodal sites along the expressway, it would also mean the destruction of farmland that could be utilized for corn and soy production.  How much more farmland can this nation afford to lose?

New highway construction will help the community in a number of ways: construction, highway maintenance, new businesses, and decreased traffic on I80/94.  Of course, there will be homes and farming communities that will be destroyed as a result of the construction.  If the landowners are compensated for future losses, we can all win with this project.   

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