CHICAGO — Illinois and Indiana's plan to build a controversial $1.3 billion tollroad through public private partnerships cleared a key hurdle as an Illinois-based regional planning committee voted to include the project in the area's long-range transportation and land use plan.

The 47-mile toll highway would link Interstate 65 in northwest Indiana to Illinois' Interstate 55 in Chicago's southern suburbs. The vote Thursday was a victory for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn whose transportation department asked regional planners to include the project in the long range plan.

The 11-8 vote by the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee to amend what's known as the GO TO 2040 regional transportation program and include the proposed project was considered crucial to advancing the project because it is needed to garner federal support. The project faces a similar test with an Indiana agency later this year.

The states intend to pursue public private partnerships to fund the road. Indiana has used a P3 model on several projects but it would mark a first for Illinois. "This is just one step in the process….this is obviously a very big step," Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider, who chairs the committee board that advanced the project, said after the vote. "This is an opportunity for us to start to try to find ways to leverage private investment to make the necessary transportation investments" given the tightness of resource for projects, she added.

Approval of the project was not a sure bet as it has prominent opponents including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and several Chicago planning agencies and environmental groups. The MPO Policy Committee and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) govern the region's long range transportation planning under state and federal legislation.

A recent CMAP report slammed the project's value to the region and warned that Illinois could be on the hook for as much as $1 billion. The CMAP board rejected the project in a 10-4 vote last week but the Policy Committee had the final word Thursday.

"The proposed facility's estimated cost and potential financing structure expose the state of Illinois to extensive financial risk. The information provided to justify the project's financial viability has been incomplete and largely anecdotal," the report said.

The vote Thursday came after several dozen representatives of local governments, congressional members, planning agencies, businesses, and residents testified at the hearing for and against the toll road.

Quinn, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and other supporters defend the project as needed to support the region's traffic, steer trucks off local roads, improve safety, and promote development along its corridor. They estimate it would create 9,000 construction jobs and 28,000 long term jobs. Opponents call those numbers inflated.

"I applaud the members of the MPO Policy Committee for making the Illiana a priority. This regional highway will not only serve the largest and fastest growing areas in Illinois, it will have a long-term economic impact of more than $4 billion in the region," Quinn said in a statement.

Opponents include some property owners along the route and environmental groups who challenge the need for the highway and have filed a lawsuit seeking to block it. Some Chicago area planning agencies have argued that it's a waste of scarce financial resources and will see little use unless a long planned, but stalled third regional airport also supported by Quinn is built in the city's southwest suburbs.

A mix of city suburban elected officials and representatives of transportation and planning agencies sit on the Policy Committee board.

The recent CMAP report said details about Illinois' planned use of a public-private partnership remain sketchy and it raised the specter that under some funding scenarios the project could result in a public subsidy of between $440 million and $1.1 billion. Illinois' share of the expressway is $950 million with Indiana picking up the remainder of the tab.

The Federal Highway Administration earlier this year approved the Illiana corridor but to proceed the state needed the project added to the GO TO 2040 program. Federal regulations dictate that the next step in Illinois' evaluation of the project's environmental impact can only be completed if the proposed new highway is approved as a GO TO 2040 major capital project.

The Illinois Department of Transportation, the Indiana Finance Authority, and the Indiana Department of Transportation recently announced agreement on how to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain the toll highway.

Each state would manage the development of its share of the roadway using their respective P3 laws to enter into long-term concession agreements. Both states intend to issue requests for qualifications for private parties interested in the project this fall. It would lead to a request for proposals process in hopes of beginning construction in 2015. Illinois officials have also said they would move forward with the project only if there is sufficient private investment interest.

For the Illiana project, the two states are considering either the design-build-finance-operate and maintain model with availability payments or a more traditional P3 structure in which an upfront investor payment finances the project, with investors reaping the benefit of toll collections. Illinois' six-year $12.6 billion transportation program includes $92 million for Illiana planning.

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