Victory in Federal Court! Illiana Tollway Tier 2 EIS “Invalid”

ELPC litigation success! U.S. District Court Judge Charles Norgle issued an Order yesterday holding that the federal and state transportation agencies’ approvals of the Tier 2 environmental impact statement and record of decision for the boondoggle Illiana Tollway are “invalid” and “no longer effective.” ELPC Staff Attorney Rachel Granneman and I are representing Openlands, Midewin Heritage Association and Sierra Club in this case.

Federal judges have now twice held in favor of ELPC and our clients that the federal and state transportation agencies’ environmental reviews of the proposed Illiana Tollway were invalid and illegal. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) impermissibly skewed their environmental reviews from the outset to somehow justify the proposed new Illiana Tollway. Their Tier 1 EIS, which was held to be illegal by the federal court on June 16, 2015, relied on improper methodologies to support the proposed Illiana Tollway and reject better alternatives. Their Tier 2 EIS relied on the flawed underlying Tier 1 EIS in then choosing among proposed corridors to build this tollway.

The new federal court decision yesterday ruled “invalid” and “no longer effective” the Tier 2 EIS approvals by IDOT, INDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. Accordingly, the court then stated that the case is now “moot” and dismissed the lawsuit. We are pleased that the federal courts have now held that both the Tier 1 and Tier 2 environmental impact statements are illegal and cannot be relied upon for the proposed new Illiana Tollway.

The U.S. District Court’s decision means that IDOT and INDOT must start over their environmental reviews from the beginning based on much more realistic data and do it right without impermissible shortcuts. However, if done right, that would very likely show that the proposed costly Illiana Tollway is not economically justified and is not environmentally sensible.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: The proposed new Illiana Tollway proposal is fiscally irresponsible, contradicts sound regional planning, and would harm the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. It’s time for IDOT and INDOT to stop wasting taxpayers’ money and time, and instead bring the boondoggle Illiana Tollway to its well-deserved end.

Thank you for your continued engagement and support. We’re winning.

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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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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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.

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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Champaign News-Gazette Editorial: Pull plug on the Illiana

Illinois’ habit of playing with fire involving its finances has to end.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has put a hold on many state spending programs because of the lack of funds. But there’s one project that he ought to kill outright — the proposed Illiana Expressway in Will County.

Most people have never heard of the Illiana, and that’s too bad. The more people who know about it, the more people there would be who would oppose it.

The Illiana is a proposed 47-mile toll road that would, according to current plans, run east from Interstate 55 near Wilmington, cross I-57 near Peotone into Indiana and connect with I-65 near Lowell. It would cost an estimated $1.3 billion and take up to four years to complete.

Illiana proponents say it would ease traffic congestion 15 miles north, at the intersection of I-80 and I-57. Theoretically, motorists would use the Illiana if they had an alternative option.

There are multiple problems with the Illiana, the most serious of which is that Illinois has severe financial problems that will only be exacerbated if this project goes forward.

Illinois already has an infrastructure inventory that it can’t maintain. A series of high-ranking state officials are seeking a gas-tax increase to meet that demand. To divert tax dollars to the building of a new road — even a toll road — would leave fewer resources to address current demands.

The Illiana has come close to passing the General Assembly in the past. For reasons known only to him, former Gov. Pat Quinn supported its construction, perhaps to win votes and financial backing from the labor union members drooling over the prospects of all the construction jobs it would create. In addition to organized labor, Joliet business interests want the cash injection into the local economy.

Gov. Rauner has been lukewarm to the idea while not ruling it out. It appeared to some that he signaled opposition when he appointed Randy Blankenhorn as the new secretary of the Transportation Department.

Blankenhorn, whose nomination has not yet been confirmed, was the head of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning when the agency’s professional staff estimated building the Illiana could cost taxpayers “from $440 million to potentially over $1 billion.”

The cost issue is directly related to the real issue — demand.

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Northwest Times of Indiana: Illiana Expressway still suck in park

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget released Wednesday includes a “placeholder” for the Illiana Expressway, but the Illinois portion of the bi-state project remains under review per the executive order the governor issued last month.

Rauner’s Capital Budget is tilted toward badly needed repairs and maintenance. But a Capital Projects List released with the budget contains $8.8 million for Illiana Expressway consultant costs this year and $5 million more for closing a deal with private investors.

There was speculation Rauner’s budget might either kill or wave through the Illiana Expressway project. But that didn’t happen, with Rauner budget chief Tim Nuding on Wednesday confirming both the Illiana Expressway and South Surburban Airport projects remain on hold pending administrative review.

Illiana Expressway opponents continued their efforts Wednesday to persuade Rauner to call off the expressway project for good. They delivered petitions to his office manager at the Thompson Center just before the governor’s budget address with 12,856 signatures asking him to end the project.

“It does tie into the budget,” said Virginia Hamann, of the group No Illiana 4 Us. “It’s a good way right off the bat to tell him a way to save a lot of money for the state of Illinois.”

The signatures were collected by a broad coalition of groups opposed to the expressway, including Sierra Club, Openlands, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Active Transportation Alliance and Illinois PIRG.

The petitions submitted included one with more than 300 signatures of residents of Indiana, Hamann said.

The Illiana Expressway would run from Interstate 65, near Lowell, to Interstate 55, near Wilmington, Ill. About 10 miles would be built in Indiana and about 40 in Illinois. It has a projected total cost of $1.5 billion.

The Indiana Department of Transportation last week formally suspended its work on developing the Illiana Expressway, pending a decision by Gov. Rauner on whether to proceed with the project.

Lee Enterprises Springfield Bureau Chief Kurt Erickson contributed to this story.

Will Co. Residents Deliver 12,000+ Petitions Saying “Stop the Illiana”

Contact: David Jakubiak, (312) 795-3713 or

CHICAGO – Carrying boxes filled with 12,856 petitions that call on Governor Bruce Rauner to end the costly, unneeded Illiana Tollway proposal, residents of Will County brought their fight over the troubled roadway to the Thompson Center on Wednesday, saying it is a threat to taxpayers, farmland and their rural lifestyle.

“When this process began we worried that we were alone, but the overwhelming response to this petition drive from taxpayers across the state lets me know that we have a chance to stop this boondoggle before it goes any further,” said Virginia Hamann, who lives close to the proposed road’s path and leads the local grassroots group No Illiana 4 Us.

Hamman’s group collected more than 4,500 petitions from residents who would be impacted by the proposal. Other petitions were gathered from Illinoisans from across the state by groups including the Sierra Club, Openlands, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Active Transportation Alliance and Illinois PIRG.

Judy Ogalla, who represents District 1 on the Will County Board, was not surprised by the widespread opposition to the costly proposal. “It is reckless to plan to spend billions of dollars on a new road that has forecasts of minimal usage,” she said. “We have many roads and bridges in the state of Illinois that are in desperate need of repair.”

David Dodd, manager of Fratrans Trucking Company in Wilmington, IL, said the proposed road would run right over the company’s property, but what’s even worse, he said it would go unused. “It will cost truck drivers as much as $40 either way to use the tollway,” he said. “Trust me, truck drivers don’t spend their money that way.”

The group was also joined by Eli Geiss, President of the Village of Symerton, who noted that the proposal runs against the agricultural heritage of his hometown. “We do not want the pollution that the trucks will give off. We do not want the diesel and salt runoff that will poison our wells and Jordan Creek.”

A pet project of former Governor Pat Quinn, the Illiana Tollway would indebt state taxpayers and destroy vital natural areas. To attract a contractor to the so-called “public-private partnership,” the Illinois Department of Transportation would mandate taxpayer support of the private contractor for 39 years. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) has projected that the road would cost taxpayers up to $1.1 billion, diverting funding that could be used to relieve congestion and repair crumbling roads and bridges across the state.

The first executive order issued by Governor Rauner effectively froze the proposed project in mid-January, but the Will County residents are calling on the Governor to pull the plug on the project.

What They Are Saying About the Proposed Illiana Tollway

Several local, statewide and national advocacy groups have supported Will County residents in opposing the deeply flawed Illiana Tollway proposal. Here’s what they are saying about the project now:

Howard Learner, Executive Director, Environmental Law & Policy Center: “The Illiana Tollway is a financial boondoggle that’s a waste of Illinois taxpayers’ money and would harm the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.  There are better, more sensible alternatives, and thousands of people across the state agree that it is time to end the Illiana and focus on smarter transportation projects.”

Jack Darin, Director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter: “The Illiana would pave over some of the best farmland in the world, pollute the Kankakee River watershed, and threaten the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. More than 10,000 people across our state have joined with leaders from around the region and expressed concern that the Illiana project would siphon dollars from other transportation projects and undermine planning for a strong Chicago region.”

Jerry Adelmann, Openlands President and CEO: “The Illiana Tollway runs counter to every conceivable concept of sound regional planning. The Illinoisans who signed this petition understand that the proposed tollway would negatively impact or destroy farmland, communities, and open space, including vital natural areas like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. It is time to put an end to the Illiana and the mockery it makes of sensible long-term planning.”

Ron Burke, Active Transportation Alliance: “These petitions vividly capture that the Illiana Tollway would not solve any transportation issues in Will County but would negatively impact other needed projects across the state. It’s time to advance transportation initiatives that solve problems, instead of creating new ones.”

Abe Scarr, Director of Illinois PIRG: “The message of the signers is that we need to move forward. The first thing that needs to happen is that the Illiana needs to be removed from the approved project list for future transportation funding. Its current position atop that lists puts every other project under uncertainty. Illinois needs to be able to plan and prioritize for future infrastructure investments, not keep propping up this zombie highway.”

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