CHICAGO — A study of a proposed 47-mile-long expressway linking northern Illinois and Indiana failed to adequately assess potential impacts to endangered wildlife, critical habitat and other sensitive areas, and was based on inflated population and jobs projections, according to a lawsuit filed by three environmental groups.
The complaint, filed late Wednesday in federal court in Chicago by Openlands, the Sierra Club and Midewin Heritage Association, claims the Federal Highway Administration violated the law when it approved a first-stage environmental study of the so-called Illiana tollway, which would link Interstate 55 in Will County, Ill., with Interstate 65 in Lake County, Ind.
"It's in an area where it will encourage tremendous urban sprawl, have a disastrous impact on agricultural land, sever communities and have obviously huge environmental impacts," said Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann, who said the area has "one of the highest concentrations of significant biodiversity in the upper Midwest."
"And it makes no economic sense, either," he said.
The estimated $1.3 billion project — discussed on and off for decades — has been embraced by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as an economic development and jobs initiative, and the two recently pitched the project to private investors, who would build and operate the tollway.
Quinn spokesman Dave Blanchette said there is "significant interest" from potential investors. He called the project "a win-win for both Illinois and Indiana," by reducing taxpayer burden "while producing huge economic benefits for both states."
The Federal Highway Administration and Illinois Department of Transportation would not comment on the litigation.
IDOT officials said the new highway is needed to help move freight and cut workers' commute times across the region south of Chicago because "the existing transportation network has been unable to support that demand." The department has estimated the tollway could create 9,000 construction jobs and 28,000 long-term jobs.