If the Chicago region’s most important transportation planning body, which decides how to spend roughly $3 billion annually in federal and state money, were going to change the definition of the metropolitan area by bringing in a new suburban county, effectively robbing Cook County of precious transportation dollars, you’d think that everybody on the Cook County Board would, at the very least, have heard of the change.

Sadly, you’d be wrong.

“I have not heard that particular plan to add Kendall County to CATS [the Chicago Area Transportation Study],” says Cook County commissioner Anthony Peraica, a candidate for board president. Same goes for Joan Murphy, who represents the nether regions of far-south-suburban Cook: “I really have not heard about it.” Even John Gibson, spokesperson for Cook County Board president John Stroger, was stumped. After I sent him some links to the CATS Web site, he responded: “We will examine the proposal and arrive at an informed position after a full review of the listed suggestions.”

On June 9 CATS, which carries out the urban transportation planning process for the metropolitan area, is set to admit a representative of Kendall County, a rural county an hour west of the city, to its planning committee. That may not seem like earth-shattering news–just some bureaucratic tinkering on obscure planning maps. But the addition of Kendall County could have big consequences for Chicago and suburban Cook County. First there are the financial stakes: building roads that will turn Kendall County’s farmland into suburbs will be expensive, and some of the money will have to be diverted from Cook County. Then there’s the likelihood that as the outer-ring suburbs grow, the city will suffer. Take the recent CTA crisis, which followed a 1983 change in the region’s transit funding formula that favored commuters from the collar counties over residents in, say, Blue Island, Harvey, and Cicero. Facilitating the continued transfer of dollars and people from Chicago to the outer burbs could make the city into a development crescent, where jobs and businesses are concentrated in a C outside the city, leaving the center hollow.

But the proposal has gone entirely unreported in the local press, possibly because to even begin to understand what’s going on you need a crash course in the arcane alphabet soup that is regional planning. Ready?

CATS is the federally recognized Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the metropolitan region. Its policy committee decides how to divvy up $3 billion every year in transportation money for Chicago and the five collar counties–Du Page, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will. While some of the money comes from Washington and Springfield already reserved for programs like air-quality improvement or bridge repairs, CATS has some latitude in how to spend the rest: whether to spend more on roads or public transportation, whether to develop the infrastructure in high-density regions of Cook County or throw money at rural towns an hour’s drive from the city. Lately they’ve been choosing the country over the city: a recent study by the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) found that in CATS’s latest long-term transportation plan, over half of the proposed new rail and road miles are in sparsely populated rural areas like southern Will County and northern Lake County.

CATS began in 1955 as an informal body charged with studying local planning issues. In 1974, as a result of federal legislation demanding that each metropolitan region designate an MPO that would craft a long-term transportation planning vision, CATS was made our MPO by default, simply because it already existed. This means the body now has far more authority than was originally intended, and since its makeup was never debated in the statehouse, where Chicago has a lot of clout, it hasn’t been compelled to maintain proportional representation. The committee is now heavily weighted in favor of the low-density collar counties that, with a combined population of 2.9 million people, have five votes, while Chicago and Cook County, which represent 5.3 million people, have two. If Kendall County were added, its 66,600 residents, about the same as in a typical Chicago ward, would have as much representation as the entire city of Chicago.

“Nobody in the region is getting what they want under the current situation,” says Jan Metzger, cochair of the Chicagoland Transportation and Air Quality Commission, a smart-growth advocacy coalition started by the CNT. “The people who are paying the bills [in Cook County] are watching their communities deteriorate, and the people who live in small towns and farms who want to preserve a way of life they appreciate are being mowed down by subdivisions. So whose interests are being served?”

One possible answer: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who represents Kendall County, has been working hard to develop the county and wants to bring in federal dollars for a highway that would connect I-88 in Kane County and I-80 in Grundy County via Kendall. Kendall’s inclusion in CATS would give him more leverage in getting the funding.

Don Kopec, executive director of CATS, says the decision to add Kendall County is a reaction to its rapid growth rather than a plan to stimulate more. “We have to look out 20 years to say, where does it look like growth is going to be? Good planning is better than no planning at all.” He says the federal government requires CATS to absorb recently “urbanized” areas as dictated by the census. The CATS planning area already includes two and a half townships in the county, and with five of its nine townships now qualifying, Kopec says it makes the most sense to bring in the county as a whole. (The logic here seems a bit circular: since the growth is going to happen, you have to build the roads, but roads are what spur the growth.)

But if Chicagoans bemoan the deal they’re getting, some of their neighbors have it even worse. “Suburban Cook County is subsidizing the rest of the region,” says Metzger. “They pay a penny sales tax but don’t get the frequent CTA service we get in Chicago and don’t get the heavily subsidized rides of Metra. The extra money they generate is going other places.”

Commissioner Murphy, who is vice chair of the National Association of Counties Steering Committee and serves on the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, says, “If Kendall County is added, I think that will be part and parcel of a demand to get more financing from these counties that are participating in our transportation without giving a fair share, because the brunt of the burden is on the taxpayers of suburban Cook and Chicago.”

On April 20 the Kendall County proposal was closed to further public comment, and the policy committee is scheduled to reach a final vote on amending its bylaws to include the county on Thursday, June 9. As nobody other than the CNT has objected, it’s essentially guaranteed to happen. County commissioner Michael Quigley, who represents the north side and who was the one person I spoke to outside the CNT who had even heard of the proposal, seems resigned. “Suburban sprawl, one of the great mistakes that was made in the last 50 years,” he says, “probably necessitates bringing other counties into the planning process–at the very minimum, to include transportation.”

During the 1990s, Chicago gained population for the first time in three decades, but in the past five years the trend has reversed and the metro area’s center of gravity has shifted westward. Cook County lost 49,000 people between 2000 and 2004, while the collar counties continue to grow at a rapid pace. Will grew 16.8 percent and Kendall 33 percent during the same period. If you think construction in the city is humming, drive west to Aurora, then south through Oswego and over the county line that separates Kane and Kendall counties, and you’ll come to the new frontier of the Chicago metropolitan region. It’s a surreal landscape: freshly constructed, identical single-family homes on half-acre lots staring out over fallow cornfields, which seem to be waiting for development dollars rather than rain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Wesley Bedrosian.