Illinois Legislators Pass Controversial I-55 Road Expansion Legislation

Legislation to enable the addition of express toll lanes on Interstate 55 in the Southwest Side of Chicago, opposed by environmental justice advocates, cleared the Illinois General Assembly last month.

3 minute read

June 7, 2023, 8:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

 “Illinois lawmakers have cleared a path forward for a long-discussed expansion of I-55, despite concerns from neighbors and environmental groups about the way the project could be funded and the repercussions of adding more lanes to the expressway,” reports Sarah Freishtat for the Chicago Tribune on May 26.

In the final weeks of the legislative session, lawmakers moved to allow the Illinois Department of Transportation to pursue a public-private partnership to complete an expansion of I-55. Such a partnership, which would allow private investment in proposed new toll lanes on the expressway, is one way IDOT could secure funding to move the project forward.

The proposed expansion could include adding express toll lanes to the highway, which runs through part of Chicago’s Southwest Side and on toward Joliet.

I-55 managed lanes xpansion map
Credit: Illinois Department of Transportation 

Flash back five years  when Planetizen editor James Brasuell was following the project :

  • Federal Approval, But No Funding for Chicago Toll Lanes, August 25, 2017
    Though the federal government approved the plan for toll lanes, called managed lanes in Illinois, the state lacks the funding to implement the idea. Two toll lane proposals are currently in limbo.
  • Illinois DOT Expands its I-55 Express Lane Ambitions, December 11, 2017
    A proposal to add express lanes on a notoriously congested stretch of I-55 that passes through the western Chicago suburbs could expand from $25 million to $700 million with the addition of an extra toll lane.

Transportation legislation

An article for Chicago's PBS station, WTTW, that focused largely on the opposition to the project, also provided the legislative details.

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,” reported Patty Wetli on May 25.

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.

Joint resolutions need not be signed by the governor. No word on whether Gov. JB Pritzker will sign HB 2878.

Chicago and public-private partnerships

Public-private partnerships are often used to build infrastructure projects. In the Windy City, though, a controversy involving the privatization of Chicago parking meters explains WTTW's reference to “parking meter-style deal” in their title.

According to Freishtat of the Tribune, the project is by no means on the fast track.

Any new toll lanes along I-55 would likely be years away. IDOT previously completed studies of the proposed expansion, but officials said in a statement Friday the agency was not pursuing plans for the expansion at this time. The agency would be reviewing the legislation and evaluating next steps, they said.

Friday, May 26, 2023 in Chicago Tribune

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