Environmental Groups Oppose Illiana Expressway Project, File Federal Lawsuits

This report by Joseph Ruzich in the 17 July 2013 edition of the Chicago Tribune details the legal action taken by three major environmental groups in Illinois opposed to the Illiana Expressway, proposed to run through the rural/agricultural parts of Will County in Illinois and provide an east-west highway link between Interstates 55 and 65, the latter of which is in Indiana.

Proposed routes of Illiana Expressway

Proposed routes of Illiana Expressway

The roadway proposal has generated years of controversy and debate, pitting pro-development forces (which includes legislators and the governors of both states) and transportation bureaucrats against environmental conservationists from organizations such as Openlands who highlight the project’s ecological impacts as well as grassroots activists/local residents who oppose the unnecessary development of prime agricultural land in northeastern IL’s rural communities.

Also at issue is the roadway’s precise path, as yet undetermined and subject to intense criticism from various quarters; the fact that it is currently without funding, despite having a projected cost of well over $1 billion; and the legal but socially unjust decision in 2012 by the State of Illinois to endow IDOT with “quick take” powers of property condemnation.

For additional commentary and background information on the Illiana Expressway, see this op-ed essay by RU professor Mike Bryson. The text of the current Tribune article follows here.

A lawsuit has been filed by three conservation groups seeking to stop plans for a major roadway that would link two interstate highways in Illinois and Indiana.

Openlands, Sierra Club and the Midewin Heritage Association filed the suit last week against two federal transportation agencies alleging they violated federal law by signing off on an environmental impact study that failed to establish the need for the so-called Illiana Expressway and that did not properly evaluate alternatives for the proposed route.

The Illinois Department of Transportation and the Indiana Department of Transportation conducted the study, but are not named in the suit, which was filed July 10 against the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration.

The proposed 46-mile road would run east and west from Interstate 55 near Wilmington, Ill., to Interstate 65, near Lowell, Ind.

The lawsuit says the Illiana would cut through a corridor that is almost entirely farmland and open space, and would cause the loss of more than 1,500 acres of farmland, 64 acres of forest and 34 acres of wetlands.

The suit claims the roadway would degrade the quality of waterways, negatively impact the southern border of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and endanger some plant life and animal habitat.

“(The environmental impact statement) failed to establish the need for the roadway,” said Jerry Adelmann, president and CEO of Openlands. “It is too far south from population centers and it will basically pollute and destroy wetlands, farms and other open space.”

Adelmann said the environmental report doesn’t take in consideration a study conducted by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning that indicates that population centers wouldn’t move that far south in the decades to come.

The Tribune reported in April that despite federal approval, the Illiana has no guarantee of even being built because no state or federal funding is available. The estimated cost for the road is $1.25 billion.

Stacy Meyers, policy coordinator for Openlands, said the lawsuit seeks to halt the project, allow more time to discuss it and look at alternatives.

“It seems like the project is going full steam without looking at the impacts,” Meyers said. “There is special habitat that will be destroyed as well as the rural heritage in the area.”

U.S. and Illinois transportation officials did not respond to requests for comment.

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