Keith Benman, Times of Northwest Indiana

CROWN POINT | Democratic lawmakers Thursday night laid out a road map for approving an Illiana Expressway privatization bill in the Indiana House, even as they faced an audience of 700 people deeply split on the issue.

House sponsor Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, told the crowd at Crown Point High School that with some changes the bill may be able to get a green light from lawmakers.

"With a few sensible additions, Senate Bill 382 could yield thousands and thousands of jobs for this area," Pelath said shortly before public comment began.

Senate Bill 382 was approved unanimously in the Republican-controlled Indiana Senate but has run into a bumpy road in the Democratic-controlled House.

Thursday night's public hearing was conducted by the Indiana House Roads and Transportation Committee, which is led by state Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson.

Austin arranged the hearing to get public input on Senate Bill 382, which would allow the Illiana Expressway to be built as a private toll road.

In addition to Austin, seven other committee members attended Thursday's hearing. That included state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, a key GOP supporter of the bill.

At least eight other legislators drove from Indianapolis to attend the hearing, including Senate sponsor Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso.

Pelath said most important to Democrats is that the public be guaranteed a voice as the Illiana Expressway project progresses and that citizens' rights under eminent domain proceedings be spelled out in the bill.

Passionate arguments for and against the bill and the Illiana Expressway have left legislators in a sticky spot.

More than half of Thursday night's crowd was made up of union members vehemently in favor of the Illiana Expressway and SB 382. But judging from applause for anti-Illiana Expressway comments, at least a few hundred people were against the proposed expressway.

Standing at the front of the high school auditorium before the public hearing, state Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, said there still are many unanswered questions about the expressway and SB 382.

She said a majority of her constituents are opposed to the proposed road.

"I believe we're past stopping this," VanDenburgh said. "The governor wants this. But I can't push that green button now. The people in my district don't want it."

State Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, said it's time to get the Illiana Expressway built, but that some way has to be found to protect people who will be directly affected by it.

"There are many homeowners and farmers concerned about losing homes and land," Lawson said. "And we have to watch out for those people."

Comments such as that appear to almost guarantee SB 382 will be amended if Democrats can muster the votes when the Roads and Transportation Committee reconvenes Monday in Indianapolis.

At a Wednesday meeting of the committee in Indianapolis, Republicans sought to have a vote taken on the bill, but Austin recessed the hearing to prevent that from happening.

If approved out of committee, it then would go the full House for debate and a vote.

The expressway, as now planned by politicians, would extend from Interstate 65 in Indiana to Interstate 55 in Illinois. A feasibility study completed in the summer examined an Illiana Expressway running from I-65 to Interstate 57 in Illinois.

Three years ago, Gov. Mitch Daniels proposed an Illiana Expressway that would run all the way to Interstate 94 in Michigan City.

But a firestorm of protest in Porter County had the governor drop that plan, and an Illiana Expressway privatization bill failed to win approval in the Indiana General Assembly.

The feasibility study presented three alternative routes for the 30-mile road. One skirts the northern side of Cedar Lake; another skirts the north side of Lowell; and another passes south of Lowell.

Up to 35,500 vehicles a day could be using the Illiana Expressway by 2030, according to the study. The cost of the full 30-mile trip would range anywhere from $2 to $6 for a car and from $7 to $21 for a semitrailer.