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Chicago Tribune: ELPC’s Learner Says 75th Street Project to Fix Freight Congestion Essential for Freight & Passenger Rail

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IDOT Seeking $160 million to ‘Untangle’ Freight Congestion at 75th Street
December 15,
By Mary Wisniewski

The Illinois Department of Transportation is applying for a $160 million federal grant to help pay for a project that aims to clear up rail congestion around 75th Street, cutting delays for Metra, Amtrak and freight railroads.

The $476 million project has funding commitments from Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads, the city of Chicago, Cook County, Metra and IDOT. IDOT applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday for the $160 million funding through the Fastlane program. If granted, it would amount to a 34 percent federal match.

“Everyone felt that now was the time to make the application and try to leverage some federal dollars,” said Randy Blankenhorn, IDOT secretary. The deadline was Thursday.

The 75th Street improvement project, near the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago, is intended to eliminate train backups at three rail junctions and one rail-roadway crossing.

It involves flyover structures, new track and new bridges. The project would eliminate the most congested rail chokepoint in the Chicago terminal district, at Belt Junction, near 75th Street and Racine Avenue, where more than 80 Metra and freight trains cross each other’s paths daily.

One of the advantages of the project would be that it would connect Metra’s SouthWest Service to the Rock Island Line around 74th Street and Normal Avenue, which would allow the service to terminate at the underused LaSalle Street station rather than at clogged Union Station — eliminating delays and freeing capacity for more intercity rail service, according to IDOT.

“The 75th Street improvement project is an important step in the right direction in untangling freight congestion in Chicago,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, who served on an Amtrak panel reviewing various rail projects. “This is an important project principally for freight but also for passenger rail and improving mobility in Chicago.”

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Illinois Times: ELPC’s Learner Says Federal Court Ruling on Illiana Should Finally End Proposed Toll Road

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End of the Road for Illiana?
Controversial Toll Road Loses Second Court Battle
November 10, 2016
By Patrick Yeagle

A federal court struck down last week an environmental study used to justify a new tollway in northern Illinois.

It’s the second such loss in court for the controversial project, which was already suspended but still clings to life.

The Illiana Expressway is a proposed 50-mile, east-west toll road which would connect Interstate 55 south of Chicago to Interstate 65 in northwestern Indiana. The project is intended to relieve congestion on Interstate 80, 15 miles to the north.

Controversial from the start, the Illiana proposal has long been a priority for the Illinois Department of Transportation. Gov. Bruce Rauner says Illinois won’t spend more money on the project, but opponents say IDOT has continued to pursue it anyway.

The controversy is twofold: whether the road is actually needed and what effect it may have on Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a nearby national nature preserve.

IDOT has projected population growth of more than 170 percent by 2040 in the area surrounding the proposed road, but that estimate is contradicted by two other planning agencies which control federal funding in that area.

Meanwhile, the potential environmental effect of the project was the basis for a lawsuit filed in 2013 by the Midewin Heritage Association, the Illinois Sierra Club and environmental group Openlands. The groups sued IDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, saying the required environmental impact statement used to justify the project was flawed.

A federal court agreed in June 2015, ruling that the study overestimated the consequences of not building the expressway and failed to adequately consider the potential effects on the surrounding area.

While that lawsuit was pending, IDOT and the FHA continued pursuing the project, releasing a second “tier” of the environmental study which built on the first. On Oct. 31, another federal judge ruled that the second tier was invalid because it relied on a first tier which had already been found faulty.

Just before the first federal court decision in June 2015, Rauner vetoed funding for the project, saying that because of the “current fiscal crisis and a lack of sufficient capital resources, the Illiana Expressway will not move forward at this time.” A spokeswoman for Rauner referred a reporter to IDOT.

Still, IDOT continued to defend the environmental study in court, filing a document in October 2015 saying IDOT and its counterpart in Indiana would continue to revise the study.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, calls Illiana a “fiscal folly” which should have died long ago. ELPC represented the environmental groups for free in the lawsuit against the state.

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StreetsBlog: The Illiana Tollway is Becoming a “Zombie Highway”

StreetsBlog Chicago

October 10, 2016
Just in Time for Halloween: The Illiana is Becoming a “Zombie Highway”
by Steven Vance

A new filing in the court case against the Illiana Tollway – a proposed 47-mile highway through farmland and nature preserves that would cause exurban sprawl and lead to Illinois jobs being lost to Indiana — indicates that Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner may actually be in favor of the project. In recent years it looked like Rauner was making moves to kill the project, but now it appears the Illiana is becoming a so-called “zombie highway” project that just won’t die.

Here’s a rundown of how Rauner previously indicated that he was killing the project. In January 2015, the newly elected governor suspended spending on non-essential capital projects, including the Illiana. In the first week of June 2015, he said the Illinois Department of Transportation would remove the Illiana Tollway from its capital plan.

Two weeks later a federal judge halted the planning of the new tollway by ruling that the required Environmental Impact Statement was invalid because the study used the circular logic that the tollway would be needed because of new housing that would be developed along the corridor… due to the construction of the highway. In September 2015, the U.S. DOT dropped their appeal of the ruling, effectively pulling support for the project.

Now here’s how the state is either keeping the Illiana on life support or else trying to keep the zombie under wraps. In July 2015, Rauner authorized spending $5.5 million to “wind down” the project, and to pay for some litigation fees.

In April this year, the Indiana DOT said that they would pay for rewriting the Environmental Impact Study. However, IDOT spokesman Guy Trigdell said “the approach in Illinois has not changed” and “we are not pursuing the project.”

News last week shows that IDOT currently appears to have a greater involvement in the project than previously stated. The Daily Southtown reported that John Fortmann, an IDOT engineer, filed a statement in federal court that said “IDOT is working cooperatively” with the Indiana DOT to fix the problems with the EIS that made the court rule it invalid.

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Crain’s: Howard Learner Warns “Devil in the Details” of Rauner’s New I-55 Toll Lane Plan

Gov. Bruce Rauner today floated a plan to add a pair of lanes, likely with tolls, to crowded Interstate 55 (the Stevenson Expressway) between I-355 (Veterans Memorial Tollway) and I-90/94 (the Dan Ryan Expressway).

Though the proposal needs approval by the highly polarized General Assembly, one key Democratic lawmaker threw his backing behind the plan, perhaps a sign that something actually will occur.

Specifically, Rauner announced his legislative allies have filed legislation to allow the Illinois Department of Transportation to negotiate a deal with an as-yet-unspecified private group, known as a public-private partnership, to study options for the Stevenson. Among those options are tolls that would go up or down depending on the time of day, a strategy known as congestion pricing.

Interstate-55-toll-lane-plan.jpg

The goal is to add at least one lane in each direction on a 25-mile stretch of road that now carries an average of 170,000 vehicles a day. Not yet determined is whether the lanes will be tolled or free, or express toll lanes. But it’s hard to imagine a private company would be interested in fronting the hundreds of millions of dollars likely needed without the promise of a revenue stream.

For the state, a public-private partnership could allow it to do work that Illinois can’t afford, with lawmakers reluctant to raise gasoline or other taxes for the state’s road construction fund.

“Managed lanes are truly an expressway within an expressway, one more option that will make travel more convenient,” said IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn.

Blankenhorn previously headed the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, a government group which has strongly backed the idea of using the Stevenson as a public-private partnership model. CMAP’s current executive director, Joe Szabo, promptly endorsed Rauner’s idea, saying in a statement, “Although new to our region, congestion pricing has been used successfully in the U.S. since 1995, with more than two dozen instances where it is being deployed to give drivers better choices for getting around.”

Such systems are common in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in particular, with freeways and tollways running parallel to each other.

But CMAP has been a vigorous opponent of another public-private partnership project, the proposed Illiana Corridor, saying the expressway would be an economic boondoggle.

That suggests that though Rauner’s plan got some immediate backing from Illinois Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, legislators ought to ask some tough questions.

A 2011 state law allows IDOT to build, finance, operate and maintain highway projects using a public-private partnership model, so long as the Legislature adopts a resolution in favor of the project. The General Assembly’s two GOP leaders, Sen. Christine Radogno and Rep. Jim Durkin, appeared with Rauner at a news conference today and are backing such a resolution.

IDOT says using a public-private partnership model could allow it to save up to $425 million in construction costs. Work could begin as soon as next year and be completed by 2019.

Update, 4 p.m. — A sign that Rauner’s proposal might face some headwinds is coming from Howard Learner, head of Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“When it comes to these types of P3 deals, the devil is in the details,” Learner says in a statement. “We need to make sure that the public is truly receiving its fair share of the benefits, and that the private investors are assuming their fair share of financial risks as well as potential rewards. The Illiana Tollway is an unfortunate example of a poorly designed P3 that imposes much too much financial risk on the public.”

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ELPC’s Learner and The Daily Herald Editorial Board Say It’s Time to End the Illiana Tollway

Seven months ago, we were extremely pleased with Gov. Bruce Rauner who had just announced that he was withdrawing any more funding for the unnecessary and expensive Illiana Expressway.

Yes, we acknowledged at the time there were administrative steps needed to completely end the proposal, which would connect I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana.

Unfortunately, not all the steps have been completed and the Illiana Expressway apparently is still alive and we must question again why that is.

Daily Herald transportation writer Marni Pyke reported Monday that the Illinois Department of Transportation filed court documents in late 2015 — months after Rauner said the plan would not move forward — saying the state agency was committed to addressing problems in the environmental report and will hire consultants to conduct more analyses.

Huh?

“No decisions have been made at this point on next steps. No funding has been identified or spent. No consultants have been hired,” said IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell.

With the state budget stalemate ongoing, that’s not surprising. There’s not enough money for things that matter, much less for items that don’t. Our question and the question others have is why is Illiana still on IDOT’s radar in the first place?

“Why is IDOT trying to push this boondoggle.” asked Howard Learner, the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “It’s hard to read that any other way than saying they’re looking for money,” Learner said. “It’s baffling”

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Daily Herald: ELPC’s Learner Baffled by Gov. Rauner & IDOT Mixed Message over Proposed Illiana

Thought dead by many, the Illiana Expressway still clings to life in court, despite Gov. Bruce Rauner’s booting it off IDOT’s radar last year.

And that worries foes of the 50-mile proposed toll road linking I-55 near Wilmington with I-65 in Indiana.

“When the state of Illinois doesn’t have a budget and is under severe financial distress — when core programs for kids and schools are being cut — why is IDOT trying to push this boondoggle?” asked Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

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The News-Gazette: Defeats take toll on road plan

If they keep driving nails into the coffin of the proposed Illiana Expressway, one day they’re going to have to bury it.

At least one would think so. But while the proposed expressway intended to link Illinois and Indiana has proved hard to kill, it is, at best, on life support.

The latest blow to this ill-conceived, unaffordable project came Tuesday when the Federal Highway Administration announced that it will not appeal a federal judge’s decision putting the plan on ice.

U.S. Judge Jorge Alonso ruled in June that environmental impact studies for the project were fatally flawed.

Alonso’s decision came about the same time that Gov. Bruce Rauner announced that the state did not intend to proceed on the Illiana because of “the state’s current fiscal crisis and a lack of sufficient capital resources.”

In addition to the lack of funds to build the Illiana, there was a distinct lack of need. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning estimated that too few motorists would use the Illiana by 2040 to meet the financial guarantees to the private developers, leaving taxpayers to make up the difference.

Because of that shortfall, the agency predicted the Illiana could end up costing taxpayers “from $440 million to $1 billion.”

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Crain’s Chicago Business: Illiana hits another major speedbump

A federal judge today threw a huge new roadblock in the way of the proposed Illiana Expressway, ruling that state transportation officials failed to submit a proper—and critical—environmental assessment of the planned south suburban tollway.

The action does not overtly kill the road. But it would require the preparation of a new Environmental Impact Statement, something that could take a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars, at a time when Gov. Bruce Rauner has ordered a halt to all Illiana contracts.

The decision came by U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso, who granted a motion for summary judgment requested by plaintiffs including the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

The ruling held that the final EIS and record of decision clearing the way for the state to begin construction on the road “was arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of federal law.

Officials at the Illinois Department of Transportation were not immediately available for comment. But ELPC chief Howard Learner suggested in an interview called on Rauner to finally pull the plug.

“The governor has said the Illiana is on hold, at the least. This is time to bring the Illiana boondoggle to an end,” Learner said. “The court has said IDOT has no legal authority to go forward on this highway.”

IDOT could come back with a new, revised EIS. But that would take time and almost certainly the hiring of expert outside consultants, Learner said.

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Breaking News: The Illiana Tollway is Ditched by Governor Rauner and IDOT

Governor Rauner and the Illinois Department of Transportation just axed the proposed Illiana Tollway boondoggle. This is great news for Illinois taxpayers, sound regional planning and protecting the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Today, the Governor issued a press release announcing that the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) will “remove the [Illiana Tollway] project from its current multi-year plan” and “begin the process of suspending all existing project contracts and procurements.”

This is a big victory for Illinois’ fiscal good sense and Illinois’ environment. Let’s focus resources on better solutions for Will County.

Thank you for your thousands of petition signatures and letters to Gov. Rauner and other policymakers. The boondoggle proposed new Illiana Tollway is being ditched — as it should be. The Environmental Law & Policy Center and our allies Midewin Heritage Association, Openlands and the Sierra Club are proud of our very hard and effective advocacy work.

Chicago Tribune: Environmentalists sue to stop Illiana Tollway

Illinois environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit over the proposed Illiana Tollway, claiming that the Federal Highway Administration’s approval relied on exaggerated population forecasts, faulty financial information and failed to adequately consider the environmental impact.

The lawsuit, filed May 21 in U.S. District Court in Chicago, is on behalf of Openlands, the Midewin Heritage Association and the Sierra Club and lists the FHWA, Illinois Department of Transportation and Indiana Department of Transportation as defendants.

In April, several environmental organizations — including the Midewin Heritage Association, Sierra Club and Environmental Law and Policy Center — sent a letter with 40 pages of documentation to the FHWA. The letter cited several reasons why the agency should “withdraw and reconsider” its approval in December of the 47-mile tollway that would link Interstate 55 near Wilmington to I-65 near Lowell, Ind.

Since the FHWA failed to respond or act on that letter, the organizations decided to file the lawsuit, said Stacy Meyers, policy coordinator for Openlands.

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