Indiana Will Fund Rewriting Faulty Illiana Environmental Impact Statement

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

The Illiana Tollway, a proposed highway boondoggle that would run through land south of the Chicago metro area, is the project that just won’t die. The tollway would be a joint project of the Illinois and Indiana transportation departments and cost Illinois taxpayers a minimum of $500 million. That’s $500 million that might otherwise be spent on necessary and financially viable projects like rebuilding the North Red Line, constructing the Ashland bus rapid transit route, and building Pace’s transitways.

Greg Hinz recently eported in Crain’s that it appears the two states have reached an agreement that Indiana will spend money to rewrite the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, which a federal judge ruled invalid last June. This federally-required document was supposed to explain why the tollway is needed, and how all impacts – to people and their property, flora and fauna – would be mitigated. Since the Illinois still hasn’t passed a state budget, it’s unable to pay for updating the EIS. We don’t know how much Indiana would spend on this.

Last year, the Environmental Law & Policy Center represented Openlands and the Midewin Heritage Association in a lawsuit against the Illiana and won by pointing out that the original EIS used circular logic. The document argued the tollway was needed in order to provide transportation access new residential and industrial development. However, its projections were based on the assumption that the tollway would be built, and would therefore induce new development in an area of farmland and nature preserves.

There are many reasons why building the Illiana would be a bad idea. For starters, most American roads don’t even pay for their own maintenance, let alone construction. Illinois’ transportation infrastructure network already has a $43 billion maintenance backlog.

Additionally, construction of the tollway would be funded through an extremely dubious public-private partnership scheme, requiring the state to compensate the concessionaire if the highway doesn’t generate a certain amount of profits. Since the plan calls for high tolls, many motorists were predicted to use alternative routes, so the Illiana would see relatively little traffic and not be a money-maker, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the revenue shortfall.

Last June Governor Bruce Rauner directed IDOT to remove the project from its multi-year transportation plan. But in July Rauner authorized more spending on the project, claiming that the money was needed to “wind down” contracts and litigation fees, but the state wasn’t moving forward with the project.

IDOT spokesperson Guy Tridgell repeated that claim this week, telling Crain’s, “the approach in Illinois has not changed” and “we are not pursuing the project.”

The Indiana Department of Transportation recently filed a federal court document explaining that they’ll pay for fixing the EIS. The document states that the nonprofits that filed the lawsuit shouldn’t worry that the tollway is going to be built since, without a proper EIS, the federal government can’t re-approve the project. The EIS includes analysis of other roads that are independent of the tollway, but perhaps Indiana is interested in building its portion of the Illiana.

In the wake of the news, ELPC’s executive director Howard Learner told Crain’s, “The boondoggle Illiana Tollway seems to be the fiscal folly project that Gov. Rauner and his IDOT just can’t give up.”

While Indiana is going it alone to get a new version of the Environmental Impact Statement approved, we’ll keep an eye out for Illinois’ future involvement.

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