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Getting Closer to the End: Judge Nullifies Federal Approval of Illiana Tollway

One of the key phrases from Judge Alonso's ruling.

It's looking like the nightmarish vision of a totally unnecessary, 47-mile highway cutting through prime Illinois farmland is not going to become a reality. A federal judge ruled yesterday that the Illinois Department of Transportation failed to provide a proper Environmental Impact Statement for the Illiana Tollway.

U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso wrote that the final EIS the state submitted was "arbitrary and capricious." He also noted that the Federal Highway Administration shouldn't have approved the EIS because the tollway's purpose and need statement was based on "market-driven forecasts developed by [IDOT] consultants," rather than sound policy.

The lawsuit was filed by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, representing Openlands, the Sierra Club, and the Midewin Heritage Association. They argued that the state used circular logic to justify the Illiana: IDOT's projections for population growth in the project area were based on the the assumption that the highway would be built. "This [ruling] is an opportunity for the Illiana saga to be brought [to] an end once and for all," said ELPC's executive director Howard Learner.

Alonso's decision is the latest stake in the heart of the Illiana, a terrible idea that was promoted heavily by former governor Pat Quinn and state representatives from the south suburbs. Two weeks ago, current governor Bruce Rauner ordered IDOT to suspend all existing contracts and procurements for the tollway, stating in a news release that "the project costs exceed currently available resources." He also told IDOT to remove the Illiana from its current multi-year transportation plan.

The ruling [PDF] also noted that IDOT and its consultants met with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Northwestern Illinois Regional Planning Commission to discuss population and employment forecasts for the Illiana corridor, but chose not to use those projections. That's because CMAP's forecasts were "based on 'aggressive assumptions regarding infill, redevelopment & densification'" and not how people would be drawn to new subdivisions made accessible by a massive highway.

CMAP and NIRPC objected to IDOT's market-driven projections because their respective regional plans recommend that new development should be concentrated in the existing metropolitan area, rather than replacing farmland with sprawl. In essence, the state said that growth should be geographically unconstrained and the MPOs said growth should be focused and sustainable.

While CMAP asked IDOT to issue a variation of their Environmental Impact Study using CMAP's growth forecasts, the state never did this. Alonso noted that IDOT also didn't address the conflict between the goals of CMAP's regional plan and the sprawl that the Illiana would enable in the EIS, as required by federal law.

The struggle to kill the Illiana is not completely over yet. Even though the environmental analysis has been invalidated, IDOT could theoretically submit a revised plan, which might pass muster. Today the Chicago Tribune reported that unnamed transportation experts said "the transportation agencies could attempt to revise the environmental impact statement to comply with the ruling — or the ruling's interpretation of the regulations — without an appeal."

Moreover, the $1.3 billion tollway – which would cost Illinois taxpayers a minimum of $500 million – still sits on a list of high-priority transportation projects for the Chicagoland region, maintained by CMAP. In 2013, Quinn strong-armed the Illiana onto that roster. CMAP’s board voted against including the tollway on the list. However, then-IDOT secretary Ann Schneider garnered the necessary votes at multiple meetings of CMAP's Policy Committee to move the project to the high-priority list.

The board and the policy committee both met last week, but neither had the Illiana on their agenda, whether as a discussion topic, or for a motion to strike it from the priority projects list. As long as the tollway still remains on that list, there's still the potential for the State of Illinois to build this boondoggle.

The invalidated EIS, and CMAP downgrading the project, could provide Rauner with political cover to officially terminate the project without fear of a backlash from the handful of state reps who hoped the tollway would created jobs and grow their local economies. Two weeks ago, when Rauner's announced he was freezing the project, Representative Al Riley of the 38th District, said, "This is a program that has been vetted by engineers, a program agreed to by the governors of two different states, it has passed all sorts of technical evaluation and has passed through the regulatory process."

However, it's looking like the tollway is toast, according to University of Illinois at Chicago transportation center director Steve Schlickman. "To have the [EIS] shot down by a federal court does seem like the Illiana is basically doomed," Schlickman told the Trib.

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