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Chicago Tribune: Environmentalists seek to overturn federal approval of Illiana toll road

Environmentalists want the federal government to overturn its decision to approve the Illiana toll road project, in light of new and “compelling” evidence, they said.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center, Midewin Heritage Association, Sierra Club and a dozen others sent a letter with 40 pages of documentation to the Federal Highway Administration, citing four main reasons it should “withdraw and reconsider” its Record of Decision issued in December.

The decision was “based on outdated information,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “We have four solid arguments that stand on their own and in combination as to why they should reconsider this decision in a serious and respectful way.”

Learner admitted it is “not par for the course” for the federal agency to reconsider a decision, “but not much about Illiana is par for the course,” he said. “Rarely are they presented with facts like this.”

Their four reasons include substantial negative impacts on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, exaggerated population forecasts, lack of viable financing, and Gov. Bruce Rauner’s suspension of the project — all of which were not realized when the Federal Highway Administration issued its record of decision in December.

The U.S. Forest Service, which operates Midewin, sent a letter in March and again this month to the highway administration, clarifying its position and stating that construction of the Illiana would result in “irreparable injury to grassland bird habitat at Midewin.”

The proposed 50-mile toll road, from Interstate 55 in Wilmington to I-65 in Lowell, Indiana, would run along the southern edge of the restored prairie.

“I do not agree with the (highway administration) view that the Illiana ‘will not substantially impair’ Midewin,” wrote Wade Spang, prairie supervisor at Midewin.

Secondly, the group’s letter cited recent evidence that the Illinois Department of Transportation never disclosed a report last year from Fitch Ratings, a major bond rating agency, that it would not give the state an investment grade rating for bonds for the Illiana, indicating that the project had a high risk of default through a private-public partnership.

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Pantagraph Editorial: Proposed tollway project needs to shelved

It would seem logical that a report costing $112,500 would require at least a few printed pages, nicely bound and well-presented.

But that’s not the case with a report on the Illiana tollway that was delivered verbally.

According to an editorial in the Chicago Tribune and reporting by Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business, Fitch Ratings was contracted by the Pat Quinn administration to determine whether the tollway would qualify for a key federal construction loan.

The answer was apparently “no,” but there is no documentation of the report. A representative of the Illinois Department of Transportation said nothing was delivered on paper. Apparently, Fitch’s answer didn’t suit those who support the tollway so they began searching other ways to finance this unnecessary project.

The tollway, a joint project of the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation, would connect Interstate 55 in Will County with I-65 in Lake County, Ind. It is billed as a way to ease truck traffic on I-80 and Quinn tried to sell it as an economic engine that would create thousands of jobs.

But to use the proposed highway, truckers would have to travel 10 miles out of their way and pay estimated tolls of $50 or more.

It’s also a bad deal for taxpayers. The project claims to be a public-private partnership but when investors decided the risk wasn’t worth it, the state agreed that the private vendor would be paid no matter the outcome.

Note to state government folks: Look up partnership in the dictionary. A deal where one side reaps the benefits and takes none of the risks is not a partnership. Taxpayers will make up the difference if this project fails.

One analysis has the taxpayers responsible for $1.1 billion over 35 years. IDOT has already spent $40 million on planning and may spend another $80 million for engineering and land acquisition. IDOT has signed an agreement to provide at least $250 million in upfront money to help build the toll road.

The state has a well-documented list of infrastructure repairs and new road projects that need to be completed before even considering this disaster.

While we generally support road project because of the economic boost that’s created, the Illiana is doomed to be an expensive failure, with already-strapped taxpayers footing the bill. If the state has money to throw around on verbal reports, any driver can provide a list of roads that need some attention.

Gov. Bruce Rauner should have already killed this unnecessary project. A $112,500 verbal report will seem like loose change compared to the piles of money that will be wasted if this project is allowed to continue.

Chicago Tribune Editorial: Illiana findings disappoint, then disappear

Illinois taxpayers spent $112,500 last year for a study to determine whether the proposed Illiana toll road would qualify for a key federal construction loan. But then-Gov. Pat Quinn didn’t get the answer he was looking for, and the information ended up in a drawer, or a wastebasket, or something.

This came to light thanks to reporting from Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business.  Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Hinz obtained a copy of a contract under which Fitch Ratings would be paid up to $125,000 to conduct the review, which was done in the spring of 2014.

Officials at the Illinois Finance Authority told Hinz that the finding was negative and that Fitch had submitted a bill for $112,500.

So hey, let’s see what Fitch had to say about the Illiana, a project regional planners have already warned would require hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

Sorry, folks. The Illinois Department of Transportation says it never got anything on paper. The analysis “was provided verbally,” an agency spokesman said, and IDOT moved on to researching other financing options without requesting any documentation. Clearly, the Illiana’s cheerleaders had already heard more than they wanted.

There are plenty of other people, though, who would like to know how Fitch arrived at its conclusion. The rating company’s reasoning and the numbers behind it would have been of great interest, for example, to members of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning board when it voted in September on a four-year update to the region’s master plan.

A year earlier, the CMAP board had voted not to add the Illiana to its priority list of projects vying for federal transportation dollars, but it was overruled by a policy committee chaired by Quinn’s IDOT secretary.

Some board members wanted to reverse that decision when it came time to vote on the four-year update. Once again, the policy committee bigfooted the CMAP board. Nobody confessed that IDOT’s financing plan for the Illiana had recently been shot down by the Fitch study.

The Illiana has never made sense financially. A joint project of the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation, the proposed 50-mile toll road would connect I-55 in Will County with I-65 in Lake County, Ind. To appeal to Southland voters, Quinn pitched it as an economic engine that would drive development and create thousands of jobs.

The Illiana is meant to provide an alternative for the trucks now clogging I-80. But they’d have to detour 10 miles out of their way and pay tolls of $50 or more.

It’s billed as a public-private partnership, but investors balked at the risk. So the states agreed to a plan under which the private vendor would get paid regardless of how much traffic (or toll revenue) the road generates. Who’d make up the difference? Taxpayers.

The CMAP staff’s 2013 analysis warned that taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $1.1 billion over 35 years. It also said the advertised economic benefits were “unsubstantiated.”

IDOT insisted the numbers would work but never showed its math, saying that to do so would compromise negotiations with the still-unnamed private partner.

But IDOT was counting on a low-cost loan available under the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA. That’s the loan Fitch Ratings said likely would not fly.

Why not? IDOT’s spokesman would say only that it was based on “the state’s overall financial situation.” That’s all he knows. There’s nothing in writing.

And that’s too bad, because you know who else might like to see the numbers behind that decision? Gov. Bruce Rauner. Because for some reason, Rauner hasn’t yet driven a stake through the heart of this moneysucking loser of a project.

IDOT spent $40 million on planning for the Illiana before the 2013 CMAP vote, which authorized another $80 million for engineering and land acquisition. Last year, IDOT signed an agreement committing Illinois taxpayers to “a minimum” of $250 million upfront to help that private partner build the toll road.

When Quinn lost the election, we thought Rauner would quickly stop wasting money on this project. He’s still thinking about it.

Maybe the research underlying that Fitch finding would persuade Rauner that it’s time for Illinois to cut its losses. It’s too bad there’s nothing to show him except that $112,500 invoice.

WBEZ: Great Lakes Pollution Symposium

Last August a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie temporarily shut down Toledo, Ohio’s water source leaving questions about the long term viability of that source of water for about 400,000 people. This was fueled not only by warm temperatures but nutrient rich runoff. Nutrient pollution has recently been connected to adverse impacts for ecological and economic systems across the Great Lakes Region. A two-day symposium in Chicago is examining the current state of nutrient management in the Great Lakes, what policies are working and how stakeholders can work towards solutions. Aquatic Ecologist Nancy Tuchman and Gail Hesse of the Ohio Lake Erie Commission sift through some of these issues.

Toledo Blade: EPA official notes planes scan for farm violations

CHICAGO — Note to corporate agriculture: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has inspectors in the sky looking down at you.

Susan Hedman, the EPA’s Midwest regional administrator, said Thursday night at a Great Lakes conference her agency has had inspectors in small planes the last three years looking for manure-management violations by large livestock operations known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Ms. Hedman declined to provide specifics, saying the occasional flyovers are an enforcement tool. But she said the federal EPA has found it useful in taking legal action against some CAFOs with large manure releases, and sees expansion potential. The surveillance is not spying: The agriculture industry is notified in advance when the agency will be flying in the Great Lakes region, she said.

“That’s a very good use of inspector time,” Ms. Hedman told The Blade following her presentation.

The event, a two-day Great Lakes symposium sponsored by Chicago’s Environmental Law & Policy Center, drew a large Ohio contingent and put last August’s algae-induced Toledo water crisis at center stage. It concluded Friday.

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AP: Nation’s Biggest Nuclear Firm Makes a Play for Green Money

The biggest player in the beleaguered nuclear power industry wants a place alongside solar, wind and hydroelectric power collecting extra money for producing carbon-free electricity.

Exelon Corp., operator of the largest fleet of U.S. nuclear plants, says it could have to close three of them if Illinois rejects the company’s pitch to let it recoup more from consumers since the plants do not produce greenhouse gases.

Chicago-based Exelon essentially wants to change the rules of the state’s power market as the nuclear industry competes with historically low prices for natural gas. Dominion Resources Inc. recently closed the Kewaunee Power Station in Wisconsin for financial reasons, and Entergy Corp. likewise shuttered its Vermont Yankee plant.

Plans for a new wave of U.S. nuclear plants have been delayed or cancelled, aside from three projects deep into construction at Plant Vogtle south of Augusta, Georgia; V.C. Summer Nuclear Station north of Columbia, South Carolina; and Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in eastern Tennessee. Electric utilities in those states do not face competition.

Nuclear plants provide about 97 percent of the electricity supply in Exelon’s Midwest market, according to company filings.

“We’re not looking for a bailout from market conditions,” said Joseph Dominguez, executive vice president for governmental and regulatory affairs at Exelon. “We are looking for policy support that every other technology receives in Illinois that produces zero-carbon electricity with the exception of nuclear.”

Though it wants financial assistance, Exelon will not release detailed information about the cost of running the three Illinois plants in Quad Cities, Byron and Clinton that company officials say are most at-risk. An analysis by state agencies estimated the cost of producing power at those plants may exceed the payments they get, though they could not be certain.

Exelon and other around-the-clock plants sometimes take losses when wind turbines produce too much electricity for the system.

Exelon remained profitable overall, making $1.6 billion last year.

“If the question is, ‘Are they under economic threat?’ I don’t think there’s any question they are,” said Paul Patterson, a utility analyst for Glenrock Associates LLC, who referred to nuclear plant closures elsewhere as evidence. “Will they shut down? I think it depends at what plant you’re looking at.”

The Illinois proposal would reward nuclear plants. Under the system, electric suppliers would have to buy credits from carbon-free energy producers. Exelon says the plan would benefit nuclear plants, hydroelectric dams, and other solar and wind projects.

Critics are concerned the rules are so narrowly drawn that the primary winner would be Exelon’s own nuclear fleet. For example, there are limits on the size of participating hydroelectric dams. Clean energy sources built in regulated markets don’t count. Neither do any renewable energy sources that have long-term contracts to sell their power to other buyers.

Crain’s Chicago Business: The secret Illiana report

The stonewalling continues on my report yesterday that the Quinn administration commissioned—but never disclosed—a report that undermined its claims that the proposed Illiana Expressway was financially viable.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation now confirms that Fitch Ratings was retained by the state to review Illiana finances last year and concluded that the plan “could not receive an investment grade rating.” The spokesman also again said that the analysis was “provided verbally” to IDOT and its financial advisers.

But that’s about all he’s saying.

Who got the verbal report? No answer.

How long was it? Were there any supporting documents? No answer.

That, says state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, is “outrageous.”

“I told IDOT I want it in writing,” Franks continued in an email. “No one would pay $112,000 for an oral report in the real world. Only in government apparently.”

Amen. But IDOT adds that it continues to review its financial options.


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Crain’s Chicago Business: Secret state study dinged Illiana finances

As Gov. Bruce Rauner considers whether to finally kill off the proposed Illiana expressway,this is a question he might want to get answered:

Why did ex-Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration, amid an all-out rush to stampede the controversial roadway through to final approval last year, commission a secret, $112,000 study of whether Illiana finances would be solid enough to quality for a big federal construction loan?

And why was that study, which apparently came back negative, never released—even now, with everybody in Springfield who knows passing the buck to someone else?

It’s a pretty sad story about the drive that would leave Illinois taxpayers liable for paying maybe $1 billion in subsidies.

Here’s what I’ve found out:

In late 2013, facing a bitter re-election campaign, Team Quinn went into overdrive to win approval of the Illiana, which would run between Interstate 55 in Illinois and Interstate 65 in Indiana. The road had its defenders, who argued it would provide a big boost to the booming warehouse industry in the south and southwest suburbs, but others considered it a boondoggle designed to get votes and political support.

In fall 2013, the staff of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, this region’s official gatekeeper for federal transportation cash, concluded that the road, which is supposed to be a public-private partnership, never would pay for itself. That would leave Illinois taxpayers on the hook in a major way.

But Quinn’s Department of Transportation strongly disputed that, saying in part that the project would qualify for a big, low-cost federal loan under the U.S. Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

CMAP’s board wasn’t swayed and opposed approving the road. But it was overruled by its policy committee, which greenlighted the project in October 2013.

Under CMAP rules, the project had to be approved again last year and it again was, after another big fight. The feds gave the road final environmental approval in September 2014.

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