Environmental groups sue Federal Highway Administration over Illiana Tollway decisions

Dana Herra May 27, 2015, 11:02am

A trio of environmental groups has filed suit in U.S. district court asking a judge to vacate the Federal Highway Administration’s approval of documents supporting the proposed Illiana Tollway.

The documents in question are a Tier 2 Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision. The impact statement considers broad factors such as general location and environmental implications of various alternatives when new transportation infrastructure is being considered. The Federal Highway Administration, or FHWA, gave its approval to the Tier 1 statement for the Illiana in 2013. That approval was appealed by environmental groups Openlands, Midewin Heritage Association and the Sierra Club. That appeal is still pending.

Last December, the FHWA approved the Tier 2 statement, essentially giving its final approval for the project, and the same three groups filed the new lawsuit.

The statements were filed by the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Indiana Department of Transportation and the FHWA, all named as defendants in the suit. Also named as defendants are the USDOT and its secretary, Anthony Foxx; Gregory Nadeau, deputy administrator of the FHWA; Catherine Batey, division administrator of the FHWA’s Illinois division; Randall Blankenhorn, acting secretary of IDOT; and Brandye Hendrickson, commissioner of INDOT.

The proposed Illiana Tollway would run about 50 miles from Interstate 55 near Wilmington to Interstate 65 near Lowell, Indiana. The road’s tentative route would cut through more than 3,100 acres of farmland, nearly 51 acres of forests and more than 64 acres of wetlands, according to the complaint. The tollway would also cut across waterways 74 times, which the environmental groups claim would degrade the quality of the water.

The road would come within 50 feet of the southern border of the Midewin Tallgrass Prairie, the largest open space in northeastern Illinois. In the suit, the plaintiffs expressed fear the toll road – and the heavy truck traffic and land development likely to come with it – would not only damage the prairie’s recreational appeal, but would harm a rare piece of natural habitat for native Illinois prairie wildlife.

In their suit, the three groups claim the defendants abused their discretion by overstating the impact the toll road would have on employment and population while downplaying its potential environmental impact. The inflated job and population numbers were then used in calculating traffic projections that support the need for the new road, the plaintiffs said. They also claim the proposed road was approved even though it did not meet fiscal restraints imposed by federal law.

Among its objections to the Illiana route, the environmental groups point out it runs 10 to 15 miles south of existing development, and serves the same east-west corridor purpose as Interstate 80, which is closer to developed communities and doesn’t charge tolls. The groups claim it would also spur heavy truck traffic on Route 53, which runs through the middle of the Midewin prairie and past the entrance to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, and has been designated a Scenic Byway by the FHWA.

The suit seeks to have the defendants’ approvals and other actions reversed, and to have them forbidden to use those documents in subsequent decisions and proceedings. The suit also asks the court to order the defendants to pay the plaintiffs’ court costs.

The suit was filed May 21 by attorney Jennifer E. Tarr, of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, on behalf of the plaintiffs.

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