PORTAGE | Region environmentalists on Thursday urged Illiana Expressway planners to make groundwater protection a key component in the project.
"You need to look at it in the beginning, not afterward," Mark Reshkin, an environmental consultant for the Northwest Indiana Forum and a retired geology professor, told INDOT officials.
Jim Earl, the Indiana Department of Transportation's project manager for the Illiana plan, spoke to the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission's Environmental Management Policy Committee Thursday morning about the plan.
The Illiana Expressway is planned to span 46.8 miles from Interstate 65 from just south of 153rd Avenue between Lowell and Cedar Lake to Wilmington, Ill., where it would connect to Interstate 65. Of the nearly 50 miles of expressway, 12 would be in Indiana.
Earl said the footprint INDOT is studying for the project is "roughly the size of Rhode Island."
INDOT is considering wildlife crossings, stabilizing soils and planting native plants and grasses as part of the Illiana proposal.
Reshkin said the Kankakee River watershed and moraine aquifer are not only important environmental resources, but are the sole source of drinking water via wells for nearly all residents in the Illiana footprint.
"There is no alternative because the area is not in the Lake Michigan drainage basin," Reshkin said.
Earl said INDOT plans to look to Illinois' more stringent groundwater standards as a possible guide for protecting Indiana's waters.
One of the options being explored, Earl said, is using an infiltration system to hold and treat runoff from the expressway before returning it to rivers and streams.
Reshkin said he is also concerned about increased development as a result of the expressway and the subsequent impact on water quality from a subsequent influx of septic systems.
Lee Botts, a Miller environmentalist, asked if public transportation was noted in any of the plans for the Illiana Expressway.
"On a large scale, it is simply continuing the dependence on private automobiles," Botts said. "Northwest Indiana is struggling with how to respond to the need for public transportation."
Earl said the issue has been addressed and public transit agencies have been part of the discussion, but the population density in the footprint does not support the need for mass transit.
Joe Exl, senior water resource planner for NIRPC, said he wants to see more concrete plans on paper before the project goes out for bids.
"It's great to be looking at what they're doing in Illinois, but we're concerned about what will be happening here locally," Exl said. "... I just don't want to see the environmental component lag behind the economic and financial components."
Reshkin said he believes much more work needs to be done to ensure water quality is protected.
"I'm not hearing it in any real way," he said. "You've got to get the experts involved. You've got to do it the right way. It's too important."
Earl said he anticipates more concrete environmental proposals to be available at June public meetings.