Lawsuit targets planned Illiana Tollway

Lawsuit targets planned Illiana Tollway
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at a recent forum touting the Illiana Tollway. WBEZ/Michael Puente
Lawsuit targets planned Illiana Tollway
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at a recent forum touting the Illiana Tollway. WBEZ/Michael Puente

Lawsuit targets planned Illiana Tollway

The long-awaited and much-touted Illiana Tollway proposed for Chicago’s southernmost reaches could face delays now that the first federal lawsuit challenging it has been filed.

Three groups, Openlands, Sierra Club and Midewin Heritage Associated filed a complaint at the Dirksen Federal Courts Building in Chicago on Thursday.

The trio targets the Federal Highway Administration, claiming it violated federal law by approving an environmental study by the Illinois and Indiana Departments of Transportation. That study, according to the complaint, failed to establish the need for the road and come up with alternatives.

The groups say the FHA’s approval of the study “undermines” long-established land use and transportation plans and threatens wildlife habitats such as the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, Ill., just east of Interstate 55.

“We feel that they have not adequately studied, reviewed and really considered everything appropriately, especially the environmental impacts,” said Lenor Beyer-Clow, policy director for the Chicago-based Openlands. “All through the corridor there’s significant protected natural areas and globally significant species.”

A spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration declined comment on the issue.

FHA public affairs specialist Doug Hecox says it’s a matter of policy that the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but it was aware of the lawsuit.

“It was brought up in a meeting this morning,” Hecox told WBEZ on Friday.

The Illinois Tollway is a joint project between the states of Illinois and Indiana.

The 47-mile, multi-million dollar east-west roadway is expected to connect I-55 in Will County to I-65 in Lake County, Ind.

Proponents say the highway has been on the drawing board for nearly a century, and was even proposed by Chicago’s famed urban planner Daniel Burnham.

Just last month, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence shared a stage in Rosemont, Ill. to tout the importance of both states working together to complete the project by decade’s end.

They say the highway will create thousands of jobs while relieving congestion on existing roadways, including I-80/94, which travels east-west from Chicago’s closer south suburbs into the Northwest Indiana cities of Hammond and Gary.

The Illiana would be located much farther south, connecting the areas of Peotone, Ill. and Cedar Lake, Ind.

The tollway is expected to serve a growing intermodal transportation hub near Joliet and possibly a third major regional airport in Peotone.

For more than a year, both states’ departments of transportation have held joint open houses to discuss routes and other issues with residents on both sides of the state lines.

At recent forums in Peotone and Lowell, Ind., dozens of opponents - most of them residents - have expressed anger over the proposed route and loss of land.

Those concerns are now being echoed in the lawsuit filed yesterday.

“Building an astronomically expensive tollway with no demonstrated need and with extreme environmental and cultural impact is foolhardy,” said Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann. “Openlands does not enter into lawsuits without extensive research and contemplation. We feel an obligation to raise concerns about this project, which is poorly planned and being pushed forward too quickly. The region has real transportation needs that are being addressed by the thoughtful, inclusive work of regional planning agencies, but this proposed tollway conflicts with these plans.”

The complaint alleges that federal highway officials violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws by approving an inadequate environmental study.

The complaint states the study is based on “inflated and displaced population and employment projections and failed to thoroughly evaluate how the tollway would create regional impacts to state and federally protected natural resources.”

The groups also claim the Illiana Tollway conflict with the core land use plans and principles of planning agencies in both states — the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC) — the two agencies that are charged with developing regional transportation plans.

However, NIRPC has yet to take a stand on whether the Illiana is needed in Northwest Indiana’s long-range transportation plans. Approval is needed to move the project along in Indiana.

To support creation of the Illiana Tollway, a massive quarry will be built near Lowell, Ind., which could change the landscape of the rural area for years to come.

Meanwhile, CMAP appears to be on the road to approving Illiana in its long-range transportation needs for Will County, although there has been some disagreement recently by board members on the exact route for the tollway.

Regardless, challengers to the project say the Illiana is bad for the region.

“The proposed Illiana Tollway route would harm important Will County treasures including the Midewin grassland, Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, and the high-quality Kankakee River,” said Cindy Skrukrud, clean water advocate for the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Instead we need a transportation plan that meets the population forecasts and principles of our region’s award-winning Go to 2040 plan.”

Follow WBEZ reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.