Could new Gov. Bruce Rauner's choice of Randy Blankenhorn as head of the Illinois Department of Transportation be a signal of his intentions for the Illiana Expressway?
Some Illiana supporters, including Will County Executive Larry Walsh, are concerned about the change-over in administration. Others don't see it that way.
For the last eight years, Blankenhorn has served as executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning — a key regional planning agency that has opposed the Illiana project in the past.
Blankenhorn and his staff in 2013 recommended not moving forward with the $1.5 billion tollway project. CMAP released an analysis estimating that toll revenues would fall short, leaving taxpayers on the hook for $440 million to $1.1 billion over a 35-year period.
“It doesn't give me a lot of optimism that the Illiana is on his bucket list of things to do,” Walsh said. “With every new administration comes new players, and new ideas and new directions. Right or wrong, we have to accept that.”
John Greuling, president and CEO for the Will County Center for Economic Development, said Monday the appointment says very little of Rauner's opinion of the Illiana. Rauner hasn't clearly stated where he stands.
Greuling said CMAP staff last year initially recommended not moving forward with the Illiana, but its policy committee later voted to include the project in a long-range regional transportation plan.
But Blankenhorn opposed the Illiana project, according to various media reports, arguing the tollway would be under-utilized by truckers because it would add miles to their trips and force them to pay a toll.
Greuling said it's likely Rauner's new administration is taking a step back on all projects – not just the Illiana.
“The reality is he's inherited a basket-full of money problems with the rollback of the income tax and the increasing deficits and pension payments,” Greuling said. “Everything is going to be under scrutiny.”
Will County Board Member Judy O'Galla, an outspoken Illiana opponent, said she thinks it makes sense for Rauner, and Blankenhorn, to review all major projects' financial impact on the state's budget.
"I'm hopeful with the new administration," O'Galla said.
Rauner announced Blankenhorn's appointment on Sunday. According to a press release, this would be a return to IDOT for Blankenhorn. He worked for the state agency for 22 years, most recently as the Bureau Chief of Urban Program Planning.
Blankenhorn was the point person on two other major infrastructure projects in Will County, the extension of Interstate 355 and the South Suburban Airport.
Blankenhorn was unavailable for comment Monday.