Federal judge strikes another blow against proposed Illiana Tollway

SHARE Federal judge strikes another blow against proposed Illiana Tollway
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Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (pictured in March 2015) announced plans to kill the Illiana Tollway as he battled with the Legislature over the state’s budget. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file photo

CHICAGO — A U.S. District Court judge in Chicago ruled Tuesday that the federal government’s approval of the proposed Illiana Tollway linking northern Illinois and Indiana is invalid.

Judge Jorge Alonso ruled the Federal Highway Administration’s 2013 endorsement of the bi-state project was “arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of U.S. environmental law.

Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner announced plans to kill the expressway between Interstates 55 and 65 south of Chicago as he battled with the Legislature over the state’s budget. He suspended the work in January, questioning its need. Indiana has also suspended work on the project pending a cost-benefit review.

Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, supported the expressway. Last month, the FHA approved plans for the project, giving officials the green light to begin looking for public-private partnerships to construct, maintain and operate the tollway.

Rauner’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the judge’s decision. However, Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said the department is, “still reviewing the ruling and exploring our options at this time.”

Telephone messages left at Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s office for comment weren’t immediately returned.

The ruling by Alonso is the result of a lawsuit filed by Illinois environmental groups that contended federal approval relied on faulty information and didn’t adequately consider environmental impacts. It claimed the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and Illinois and Indiana officials relied on inflated population, job and traffic forecasts to justify the $1.5 billion, 47-mile highway.

Environmentalists also claimed reviewers failed to adequately consider potential harm to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

“We are very pleased the Federal District Court has ruled in our favor, which should bring the boondoggle proposed Illiana Tollway to an end,” said Environmental Law & Policy Center executive director Howard Learner.

Supporters, including Pence, say the expressway would relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 80 and create much-needed jobs.

“We’re ready to build the Illiana whenever Illinois is,” Pence spokesman Christy Denault said earlier this month.

Many businesses, labor unions and community groups also support the project.

But an analysis released in 2013 by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning concluded the route’s traffic and tolls would fall short, leaving taxpayers on the hook for anywhere from $440 million to $1.1 billion.

Agency staffers also concluded it would have minimal impact on economic development or long-term job creation beyond the workforce needed to build it.

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