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The Illiana’s Latest Death Blow: Feds Dropping Their Appeal of Court Ruling

Photo of the then-recently opened I-355, 127th St overpass
The Illiana's high tolls would have driven motorists to use other routes instead. Photo: Tim Messer

A new legal development may represent the final nail in the coffin for the wasteful, destructive Illiana Tollway project. Yesterday, the Federal Highway Administration dropped its appeal of the court ruling that invalidated the Illiana's key supporting document.

Back in June, U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso invalidated the tollway's Environmental Impact Statement, calling it "arbitrary and capricious." The EIS was jointly prepared by the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation.

Alonso noted then that the FHWA shouldn't have approved the EIS because the tollway's purpose and need statement was based on "market-driven forecasts developed by [Illinois Department of Transportation] consultants," rather than sound policy. The Illiana was a terrible idea that was heavily promoted by former Illinois governor Pat Quinn and state representatives from the south suburbs.

Illinois taxpayers would have been on the hook for a $500 million down payment for the tollway. They also would have been responsible for future payments to the private operator in the event that revenue from tolls came up short. One of IDOT's studies showed that the Illiana's tolls would be several times higher than those on other Illinois tollways, which would cause many drivers to opt for non-tolled roads in the same corridor instead.

The highway would have destroyed protected natural areas and heritage farmland. It also would have induced sprawl to new areas outside of the current Chicago metro region.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center filed the original lawsuit against the tollway. ELPC executive director Howard Learner told Crain's yesterday that the Illinois or Indiana transportation departments could file their own appeal of Alonso's ruling. However, he said IDOT and INDOT would "look rather silly" supporting a project that the federal government appears to have given up on.

The FHWA move to drop their appeal joins a growing list of developments that have suggested the Illiana project is dead in the water. In early June, current Illinois 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 tollway still included on a list of high priority projects maintained by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's board and policy committee. That, along with the fact that Rauner hasn't officially killed the Illiana, means the project could conceivably be resurrected if IDOT drafts a new, satisfactory Environmental Impact Statement. Therefore, it's still too soon to relegate this ill-conceived highway plan to the dustbin of history.

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