Environmental groups sue over Illiana Expressway

A study of a proposed 47-mile-long expressway linking northern Illinois and Indiana failed to adequately assess potential impacts to endangered wildlife, critical habitat and other sensitive areas, and was based on inflated population and jobs projections, according to a lawsuit filed by three environmental groups.

The complaint, filed late Wednesday in federal court in Chicago by Openlands, the Sierra Club and Midewin Heritage Association, claims the Federal Highway Administration violated the law when it approved a first-stage environmental study of the so-called Illiana tollway, which would link Interstate 55 in Will County, Ill., with Interstate 65 in Lake County, Ind.

“It’s in an area where it will encourage tremendous urban sprawl, have a disastrous impact on agricultural land, sever communities and have obviously huge environmental impacts,” said Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann, who said the area has “one of the highest concentrations of significant biodiversity in the upper Midwest.”

“And it makes no economic sense, either,” he said.

The estimated $1.3 billion project — discussed on and off for decades — has been embraced by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as an economic development and jobs initiative, and the two recently pitched the project to private investors, who would build and operate the tollway.

Quinn spokesman Dave Blanchette said there is “significant interest” from potential investors. He called the project “a win-win for both Illinois and Indiana,” by reducing taxpayer burden “while producing huge economic benefits for both states.”

The Federal Highway Administration and Illinois Department of Transportation would not comment on the litigation.

IDOT officials said the new highway is needed to help move freight and cut workers’ commute times across the region south of Chicago because “the existing transportation network has been unable to support that demand.” The department has estimated the tollway could create 9,000 construction jobs and 28,000 long-term jobs.

Adelmann said environmentalists acknowledge that transportation improvements are needed in the region — but closer to Chicago, where most of the development is already occurring. He said the plan also conflicts with local and regional land-use and transportation plans already in place in both states.

The proposed route would cut through an area of high-quality farmland and undeveloped natural areas, and would disturb habitat and wildlife in the 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, environmentalists said. They said some of the plants and animal species in the path of the roadway are listed as federally or state-endangered, including the eastern prairie fringed orchid, Franklin’s ground squirrels and Blanding’s turtles.

Adelmann said he believes Quinn and Pence have put the project on “a fast track,” which he called “foolhardy” and short-sighted. Quinn and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2010 formalized an agreement to proceed with the project.

The study acknowledged that there is little state or federal money available for construction, but Quinn and Pence last month spoke to a gathering of hundreds of investment bankers to try to sell them on the project. It’s not clear how such a public-private partnership would be crafted, including how or whether states would make money directly from the tollway.

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