PORTAGE, Ind. (STMW) — The Illiana Expressway zoomed into the fast lane Thursday with support coming at about a 3-1 margin from the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.

The commission approved three separate resolutions required to move the Illiana forward. The first vote didn’t come without debate.

Hammond, Ind., Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who opposes the $1.3 billion tollway to be built in southern Lake County, tried to delay the vote unsuccessfully.

McDermott said the 2040 implementation committee should take a clear stance on the Illiana before the full commission voted. The advisory committee met last week but was not able to form a consensus on a position.

When the delay failed, McDermott tried without success to separate the vote from a measure to expand lanes on I-65 between U.S. 231 and Ind. 2.

“We’re changing the landscape and taking away homes,” McDermott said. “We should do everything in our responsibility before we make a decision.”

The vote required both Illiana and the I-65 expansion due to air quality conformity requirements, according to James A. Earl, Indiana Department of Transportation project manager. In order to separate the two projects, air quality studies and monitoring would have to be redone.

The commission agreed to include Illiana in its 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan and finally on a resolution including the highway in the commission’s Transportation Improvement Program.

The favorable votes buoyed the hopes of dozens of construction workers in the audience who sported “Build Illiana” stickers.

“It will mean long- and short-term work,” said Acy Wartsbaugh, a member of Local 150 of the Operating Engineers. “You build a road, you have to keep it up.”

However, federal approval is still needed before the Illiana tollway can be built.

Earl said Illinois and Indiana will each hold a public hearing in mid-January to allow comments on the environmental impact of the project. No date or place has been set for those hearings, he said.

Those findings will be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration for approval, which could come as early as March, according to Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Jim Pinkerton.

The 47-mile tollway would connect I-55 in Illinois with I-65 in Indiana. Once federal approval is secured, a private highway developer will be named.

Construction is expected to begin in 2015, with completion in 2018, Pinkerton said.

McDermott had said earlier this week he weighed the pros and cons at length and believes Illiana does not conform to NIRPC’s 2040 plan that focuses on revitalization of Lake County’s urban core. He also said Illiana would contribute to urban sprawl in south Lake County and disinvestment in his own city.

State transportation officials in Illinois and Indiana have said the tollway would be built through a public-private partnership, with Illinois’ share about $950 million.

State and federal politicians praised the decision by NIRPC commissioners, saying the decision will create jobs.

“I am grateful to the members of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission for their vote in favor of this important project, which will bring jobs and economic growth to northwestern Indiana and throughout the state,” said Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican.

U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said financing through a public-private partnership is a creative solution during a time when federal dollars are hard to find.

“Given the fiscal constraints our nation is facing in Washington, the Illiana Expressway is a forward-looking solution that leverages innovative private-sector funding sources,” Coats said.

Illiana also has the support of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat.

Transportation departments from both states have been drawing up route scenarios and holding public meetings on Illiana for the past few years.

Only about 10 miles of Illiana would be in Indiana, at least initially. Officials say the highway will ease truck congestion along busy Interstate 80/94, routing trucks south from an intermodal hub near Wilmington.

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2013. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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