Opponents Scrambling to Block Parking Meter-Style Deal Brewing in Springfield Over Proposed I-55 Expansion

Video: Joining “Latino Voices” to discuss the proposed expansion are José Miguel Acosta Córdova, senior transportation policy analyst at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization; Dany Robles, climate policy director at the Illinois Environmental Council; and Kate Lowe, associate professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois Chicago. (Produced by Eunice Alpasan)

Bills and resolutions have been flying fast and furious through the halls of the capitol in Springfield as the current legislative session comes to a close, including a pair of eleventh-hour proposals that have some drawing comparisons with Chicago’s much loathed parking meter deal.

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House Bill 2878 and House Joint Resolution 23 (HJR23) both include provisions that would expand the scope of public-private infrastructure partnerships, in effect ceding a portion of control over planning and development to private entities, opponents said during a press conference Tuesday.

The infrastructure most immediately in question is I-55, specifically a plan to expand the highway by adding express toll lanes that would be managed by a private party.

House Joint Resolution 23 would give the Illinois Department of Transportation the authority to enter into such a partnership in order to fund the highway’s expansion, an expansion IDOT says is needed to ease congestion.

House Bill 2878 is an omnibus bill that includes language related to public-private infrastructure partnerships. 

State Rep. Theresa Mah, whose South Side district is bisected by I-55, said she was “alarmed” by the speed at which the proposals were introduced and fast-tracked through normally sluggish channels.

“I don’t think decisions of that kind of significance should be made in that way,” said Mah. 

Environmental justice activists from Chicago communities located along the I-55 corridor said more lanes for vehicles would only lead to more pollution and more congestion in neighborhoods already over-burdened with emissions from trucks and cars. Activists called, instead, for the state to stretch its imagination and dream up holistic solutions for neighborhoods that would incorporate pedestrian, bicycle and public transit options.

Though IDOT documents reference community meetings held as far back as 2012 regarding the expansion project, residents said that’s news to them.

“Communities along the corridor were not actively engaged in this project,” said José Miguel Acosta-Córdova of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “LVEJO only learned about this a few weeks ago.”

Kate Lowe, an associate professor of urban planning and policy at University of Illinois-Chicago, said the proposals are problematic on multiple levels.

“Adding lanes does not fix congestion,” said Lowe, who specializes in transportation issues, but rather, it creates “induced demand.” More lanes attract more cars, she said, and roadways fill up with more congestion.

More ominous, though, is giving private companies control of public assets, she said, as Chicago has seen with the 75-year lease of its parking meters.

There’s more at risk, Lowe said, than just lost revenue. (Chicago’s parking meter “owners” have already recouped their investment, with more than 60 years left on the lease.) 

“It could lead to projects where private companies are guiding decisions,” Lowe said, with unsolicited proposals from developers “controlling the narrative” of public infrastructure policy.

Such public-private partnership agreements can be written with non-compete clauses, for example, which could translate into a toll lane manager squashing transit development. 

“There’s a lot at risk and these deals are often rushed,” said Lowe. “The lack of public process and public oversight is so dangerous.”

“These bills will open the floodgates to further profiteering,” said William McNary, co-executive director of Citizen Action/Illinois. “The purpose of public infrastructure is for the public. So let’s slow this vehicle down.”

Note: This article was first published May 23 and updated with video on May 25.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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