Environmental Groups Charge Illiana Illegally Bypassed CMAP

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

The U.S. Forest Service says the Illiana “will cause irreparable damage to the habitat” of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Photo: Oscar Shen/Flickr

The Illiana Expressway encountered a potential roadblock in the form of a lawsuit filed last Thursday.

Three environmental groups filed the lawsuit: the Environmental Law & Policy Center, representing Openlands and the Sierra Club. The lawsuit [PDF] alleges that IDOT circumvented the proper approval process to get the tollway past a crucial review.

On October 9, the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency board voted 10-4 against amending the GO TO 2040 regional plan to include the Illiana Expressway as a “fiscally constrained” project. Doing so, the equivalent of adding the toll road to the region’s transportation budget, would have ensured funding for construction before 2040. According to the Illinois Regional Planning Act, this vote should have stopped the project from proceeding. Instead, IDOT scheduled a second vote a week later by the MPO Policy Committee, and made sure that committee’s vote went in its favor.

According to Andrew Armstrong of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, IDOT fell afoul of a process clearly spelled out in CMAP’s enabling legislation. The Regional Planning Act states that “all MPO plans, reports, and programs shall be approved by the CMAP board prior to final approval by the MPO,” or in this case the policy committee.

Simply put, the October 9 “no” vote should have pre-empted the policy committee’s October 17 vote — but IDOT kept the Illiana on the agenda of the later meeting, which IDOT secretary Ann Schneider chaired, and at which the project was approved 11-8.

The day before the October 17 vote, the Environmental Law & Policy Center sent a letter to the CMAP board and MPO Policy Committee, warning them that a vote would violate the Regional Planning Act. CMAP’s executive director did not respond until October 24, stating that federal law gives the policy committee authority to have final say over the project’s inclusion in the regional plan. Furthermore, a 2009 memorandum of understanding between the CMAP board and MPO Policy Committee specifies that the committee has the final decision.

The plaintiffs will go to court next Tuesday on the initial motion after the complaint was filed. The court will eventually have to decide whether the policy committee should have voted on the Illiana, even after the CMAP board rejected it.