Wildlife concerns delay Illiana Expressway

2014-06-10T16:30:00Z 2014-06-26T00:29:08Z Wildlife concerns delay Illiana ExpresswayKeith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

Final federal approval for the Illiana Expressway has been delayed by concerns about endangered species and habitat that may be affected by construction of the 47-mile bistate expressway.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has raised concerns about how the expressway would affect endangered or threatened species like the sheepnose mussel and the long-eared bat, INDOT project manager James Earl told members of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission on Tuesday.

In addition, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and other agencies have expressed concerns with the expressway's impact on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois.

Consultations over those concerns have delayed the federal record of decision that is needed to give the green light to the project, Earl said. That decision was originally expected by the end of May.

The federal record of decision is now expected in the July-to-September time frame, Earl said. That pushes back the date for a host of other moves needed to get the road built. Those include some property acquisitions and the issuance of a request for proposals soliciting private investors who want to build and operate the toll road.

The Indiana Department of Transportation now forecasts it will be late summer or fall of 2015 at the earliest before construction can start, Earl said.

Environmental groups have been raising the issue of endangered species and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie ever since the first draft environmental impact study for the expressway was underway in 2012, according to Andrew Armstrong, a staff lawyer with the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

"That we are now this far along in the process and we still don't have an opinion on endangered species, that just makes it obvious that this project has not received the thorough consideration it needs," Armstrong said.

In July, the Environmental Law & Policy Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of Openlands, Sierra Club and Midewin Heritage Association, where it was alleged the Federal Highway Administration violated the law when it approved the Tier I environmental impact study for the expressway.

The Illiana Expressway would run from Interstate 65 just northeast of Lowell to Interstate 55, near Wilmington, Ill. It has an estimated $1.5 billion price tag.

As recently as April 25, Illinois Secretary of Transportation Ann Schneider told an audience in Park Forest construction could start in late 2014 or early 2015.

INDOT may start some acquisitions of high-priority properties needed to build the expressway before a record of decision is issued, Earl said. Appraisals of those properties are already underway. The appraisal process has been underway in Illinois since March.

INDOT and the Illinois Department of Transportation have been consulting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, most recently answering questions from the federal agency in mid-May, Earl said.

Fish & Wildlife has told the state agencies it could deliver a draft opinion in the matter by the end of this month, Earl said. However, the federal agency technically has 135 days from mid-May to render its opinion.

On May 28, all other federal regulatory agencies gave their concurrence for the preferred alternative for the expressway, Earl said.

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