Greens Fight New Tollway South of Chicago

     CHICAGO (CN) – A proposed toll road between Indiana and Illinois will destroy thousands of acres of farmland and forest and skirt the largest wilderness reserve in northeastern Illinois, environmentalists claim in court.
     Three groups – Openlands, Midewin Heritage Association and the Sierra Club – sued the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and their national and Illinois administrators, in Federal Court.
     “The Illiana Expressway is a proposed new 46.8-mile tolled expressway in the exurban edge of the Chicago metropolitan area. This tollroad would run east-west from Interstate 55, near Wilmington, Illinois in southwestern Will County, Illinois, to Interstate 65, near Lowell, Indiana in Lake County,” according to the complaint.
     The highway would connect Illinois and Indiana about 60 miles south of Chicago.
     Officials have not told the public how high the tolls will be.
     “Defendants currently estimate that the Illiana Expressway would cost at least $1.25 billion. The new tollroad would cut through a corridor that currently is almost entirely farmland and open land, causing the loss of over 1,500 acres of prime farmland, 65 acres of forests, and 34 acres of wetlands,” the complaint states.
     “The proposed new tollroad would cut across rivers and other waterways more than 30 times, degrading the quality of these waterways, and require the construction of new bridges over the Kankakee River and other rivers and waterways.
     “The proposed new tollroad would be built along the southern border of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which was established in 1996 by the United States Congress as the first national tallgrass prairie in the country. Midewin covers 18,225 acres, and it is the largest open space in the Chicago metropolitan area and northeastern Illinois.”
     The plaintiffs claim the Federal Highway Administration relied on “inflated population and employment forecasts for the Illiana Expressway study area. These inflated forecasts, in turn, became the basis for inflated traffic projections used to establish the proposed new tollroad’s purpose and need, and for evaluating alternatives to fulfill that need. As a result, defendants were unable to conduct a rigorous exploration and objective evaluation of the alternatives as required by NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] and other federal laws.”
     The Federal Highway Administration study projected that population along the Illiana site is projected to grow by 175 percent and employment by 225 percent in the next couple decades.
     “The existing transportation network is unable to support the demand,” the Illinois Department of Transportation claims on its website devoted to the Illiana. “Based on technical analysis, including growth trends, current and projected traffic, and stakeholder input, the three needs to be addressed by the project are improving regional mobility, alleviate local system congestion and improve local system mobility, and providing efficient movement of freight in the Study Area,” it says.
     These allegedly inaccurate forecasts were questioned by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which makes official population and employment forecasts for the Northeastern Illinois area, according to the complaint.
     Plaintiffs also accuse the Federal Highway Administration of underplaying “environmental impacts by ignoring or deferring study of significant areawide impacts. As a result of these errors, defendants were unable to conduct a rigorous exploration and objective evaluation of the alternatives to and for the Illiana Expressway as required by NEPA and other federal laws.”
     The environmental groups ask the court to reverse defendants’ approval of the Illiana expressway.
     They are represented by Andrew Armstrong with the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

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