Conservation groups oppose Illiana Expressway

2013-07-12T14:00:00Z 2013-07-13T16:28:04Z Conservation groups oppose Illiana ExpresswayKeith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

Three environmental groups are suing to try to stop the proposed Illiana Expressway, alleging the 47-mile toll road conflicts with local land use plans and will wreak havoc with the environment.

The groups Openlands, Sierra Club and Midewin Heritage Association charge the Federal Highway Administration violated the law earlier this year in approving an expressway environmental study undertaken by the transportation departments of Indiana and Illinois.

"This process is going so fast, people are just starting to understand and feel they have a voice," said Stacy Meyers, policy coordinator for Openlands. "You are seeing more people stand up and say no."

When asked about the lawsuit, an Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, focuses in part on the role played by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission and a similar organization in Illinois.

NIRPC and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning must approve the expressway before it can be built.

The lawsuit alleges the expressway would conflict with the land use plans of both planning organizations, including NIRPC's award-winning 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan.

NIRPC has not yet taken a position on the expressway, but the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning could do so as early as this summer.

A key NIRPC committee heard earlier this week from Illiana Expressway planners, who said their studies show building the Illiana Expressway would reduce total time motorists would spend driving in the region by about 35,700 hours per year. They said alternatives to building the expressway, such as improving local highways, would result in little or no reduction in hours traveled.

"The Illiana seems to pass muster as far as the congestion management test," said Philip Roth, a supervising planner for Parsons Brinkerhoff, which is advising on the project for both states.

The conservation groups opposing the expressway in court challenge many of those findings, including state department of transportation projections of population and employment, Meyers said. Those in turn are a key component in traffic projections.

The expressway would start at Interstate 65 in Indiana, pass just north of Lowell, and east to Interstate 55, near Wilmington, Ill.

The conservation groups also argue the Illiana Expressway would have major impacts on the Kankakee River and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, endangering mussels, squirrels, turtles and bald eagles.

"The noise and light and exhaust from this are a huge issue when you have grassland birds that need hundreds, if not thousands, of acres to nest," Meyers said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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