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New highway may leave Illinois homeowners in the dust

Marketplace Contributor May 10, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: Building a highway these days is a lot trickier than it was back in the ’50s. There’s a lot more stuff in the way now. Just ask lawmakers in Illinois, who may vote today on a bill that would fast track construction of a highway east of Chicago. The Illiana expressway would connect Illinois and Indiana. Makes sense, right? But the method the state wants to use to get the land for the freeway isn’t sitting well with many residents in its path.

From WBEZ in Chicago, Lauren Chooljian reports.

Lauren Chooljian: When Todd Benjamin and his wife Colleen found out about the project, they raced to their computer to see if the state was planning to seize part of their property for the construction.

Todd Benjamin: From what I understand they’re gonna put that highway right here on the north side of this property between here and that grove of trees.

According to an online map of possible routes, Benjamin’s livestock trading office could soon front a massive expressway. His family has owned land for generations.

Benjamin: And now they’re talking about taking it away?

A bill is pending in the Illinois House that would give the department of transportation quick-take powers for the expressway. It’s basically a fast-track version of eminent domain. The state government chooses the land it wants and then tells a judge what it’ll pay. Property owners can take that money and run, or fight in court over the value — but that’s after their land’s been taken.

Dan Tarlock is a professor at the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. He says quick-take is a common practice for states around the country. It’s often used for public private infrastructure projects like the Illiana Expressway.

Dan Tarlock: In order to induce private financing, quick-take is a big incentive to invest, otherwise a lot of private money would be tied up.

State Senator Toi Hutchinson sponsored the bill. She says quick-take also speeds up the process.

Toi Hutchinson: Eminent domain takes about three years but quick take takes about two, so if you add another 24 months for land acquisition then we could be breaking ground in 2016.

Hutchinson says the project could create around 14,000 long term jobs, and could bring $6 billion in investment over the next 30 years. But she says she does feel for landowners who could lose their land — especially in a region where most property is passed down through generations.

Todd Benjamin says that doesn’t matter to him and neighbors.

Benjamin: It wouldn’t make any difference if it was six years or six generations — it’s still, it’s yours. It’s not theirs.

In Chicago, I’m Lauren Chooljian for Marketplace.

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