CHICAGO (CN) - The U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration violated federal environmental law in approving highway construction slated to begin in the Chicagoland area, groups opposed to the project say in Federal Court. The Friends of the Fox River and Citizens Against the Sprawlway say plans for the $1 billion Prairie Parkway highway - which will cut through 8,000 acres of open space, wetland and forest - failed to consider alternatives or adequately assess the project's environmental impact.
IDOT, FHWA and their administrators approved the project, which includes construction of 37.1 miles of new highway and widening of 11.5 miles of an Illinois state road, despite the activists' comments and concerns noting the project's shortcomings and violations.
The plaintiffs say the project's limited scope failed to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires every major federal action that could affect the quality of the human environment to "carefully examine alternatives to the proposed action and the comparative environmental impacts of different alternatives."
According to the lawsuit, the defendants chose the project's Fox River location years before beginning the NEPA process. This, and rejection of better solutions such as expanding the METRA rail line or upgrading existing roadways, fails to meet NEPA's condition to "rigorously explore" all practical alternatives to a project that will destroy land, impede recreational activities, degrade water quality and divert hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from other transportation projects, the lawsuit claims.
As early as 1999, the defendants intended to build a new highway connecting I-80 and I-88 in the Kendall, Kane and Grundy counties to "help enhance north-south mobility." In 2002, IDOT established property restrictions along a 36-mile, 400-foot-wide corridor banning future development. Plaintiffs say the site is similar to the final Prairie Parkway route chosen in 2008.
When the defendants released their draft Environmental Impact Study in 2006, voters in the proposed project's counties opposed the Parkway, according to the plaintiffs. They say the EIS compared transportation alternatives in a confusingly named "No Action Alternative" which failed to consider outside alternatives or those including transit improvement.
The EIS' two outside alternatives included both the loss of 8,000 acres of farmland and open space, 51 acres of forest, three acres of wetland, and homes for endangered species such as the greater redhorse, smallmouth bass and mussels, the complaint states.
The plaintiffs criticized the draft's incomplete analysis of alternatives and called its environmental impact measurements inadequate, but FHWA and IDOT's 2008 Final EIS perpetuated many of the same errors.
Despite objections from Friends, Citizens and other organizations over the project's alleged flaws and limited benefits, the defendants confirmed the new Prairie Parkway and highway widening as the chosen "alternative."
Friends and Citizens say IDOT and FHWA's disregard for NEPA is arbitrary and abusive, and seek a court injunction to stop the Parkway's implementation until NEPA requirements are met.
They are represented by Albert Ettinger with the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.