Jonathan Bilyk Jun. 17, 2015, 3:10pm

A federal judge has dealt another blow to the already tottering Illiana Expressway project, ruling the federal highway officials’ approval of documents supporting the proposed interstate highway project is not anchored strongly enough in actual population or construction forecasts to pass muster under federal law.

U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso ruled June 16 the Federal Highway Administration did not abide by the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal law when it signed off on the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision for the planned Illiana road in 2013.

In his opinion, Alonso reasoned the FHWA, the Illinois Department of Transportation and other agencies supporting the Illiana project relied on a “flawed” self-fulfilling prophecy to justify the project. Essentially, Alonso said he believed the purported need for the project – expected population growth in and around Will County – would itself be driven in no small part by the construction of the Illiana roadway itself.

“Because the record shows that the ‘no build’ population forecast may or does include the ‘build’ condition, the record does not support the (environmental impact statement’s) statement that the purpose and need for the Illiana Corridor is to accommodate the anticipated population boom in Will County,” Alonso wrote. “Moreover, the flawed ‘no build’ forecast is the foundation for the (transportation) agencies’ projection of future traffic in the study area and their conclusion that the existing roadways cannot adequately serve the future transportation needs.”

In remanding the case to the transportation agencies for further proceedings on the need for the Illiana, Alonso said the agencies’ prior determinations supporting the roadway are “arbitrary and capricious and in violation of NEPA.”

The decision represents a victory for a group of environmental interest groups, including Openlands, Midewin Heritage Association and the Sierra Club, who had brought the suit. The action was also publicly supported by a number of property owners along the proposed Illiana corridor and other opponents of the proposed highway project.

The proposed Illiana Expressway would run about 50 miles from Interstate 55 near Wilmington to Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind. The road’s tentative route would cut through more than 3,100 acres of farmland, nearly 51 acres of forest and more than 64 acres of wetlands, as well as crossing waterways 74 times, according to legal complaints filed against the highway agencies.

Supporters have said the highway is needed to alleviate congestion on surrounding roadways, and better meet the transportation and freight movement needs of a growing population in Chicago’s south and southwest suburbs and in northwest Indiana.

The environmental groups who sued claimed the agencies have exaggerated the economic benefits to the region from the new road, while minimizing the potential environmental impact, particularly to surrounding waterways and the adjacent Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Despite objections from a range of opponents, the FHWA and the DOTs in Illinois and Indiana moved to support the project and the designation of the proposed road corridor. The FHWA approved the required Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement in 2013, and approved the Tier 2 Final EIS and Record of Decision in December 2014, essentially approving the Illiana proposal.

The environmental groups challenged the Tier 1 decision in federal court in 2013, and filed suit in May 2015 against the federal and state roadway agencies over the Tier 2 and Record of Decision determinations.

In his opinion, Alonso noted the Tier 1 EIS also falls short of estimating the true impact of the Illiana highway on surrounding roadways, which are now primarily rural, but may need to be upgraded to handle the increased burden placed on them by the proposed interstate highway – a cost likely placed on the shoulders of surrounding road districts, counties and cities along the route.

“It is not clear that the EIS contains a true ‘no build’ analysis,” Alonso said. “Without such an analysis, it is impossible to determine the extent to which building the Corridor will increase traffic on existing roads and the impact such increased traffic may have on the study area.

“Thus, absent a supported no build analysis, the EIS does not comply with NEPA’s directive to analyze the project’s direct impacts.”

The judge further chided the agencies for not relying more closely on population forecasts developed by metropolitan planning agencies in Illinois and Indiana, such as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. Those forecasts, he said, include clear policy prescriptions to limit outward growth, a goal with which the Illiana proposal would conflict.

He said those planning groups’ forecasts and the proposed Illiana Corridor suffered from a “clear inconsistency,” which, under NEPA, would force the highway agencies “to address it and explain how they would reconcile the proposed action with the plans.”

The decision comes as yet another strike against the Illiana project. In recent weeks, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner announced he was withholding funding from the project, in light of the state’s budget difficulties.

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