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INDOT acts to keep Illiana Expressway alive
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INDOT acts to keep Illiana Expressway alive

Illiana Expressway

Northwest Indiana residents examine a large map of the proposed Illiana Expressway three years ago at an Indiana Department of Transportation hearing at Lowell Middle School. The project seemed dead after Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner turned a cold shoulder to it after taking office in January 2015. But INDOT is forging ahead with revising a key document on the road so it can past legal muster.

A late April agreement between the Indiana and Illinois departments of transportation aims to keep the Illiana Expressway project alive, though Illinois hasn’t put it back on the state’s agenda.

The agreement between the two transportation agencies has Indiana paying to make changes to the project’s Environmental Impact Statement so it can pass legal muster. Last year, a federal judge rejected it, ruling the document flawed and inadequate.

The Environmental Impact Statement details the potential demographic, economic and environmental impact of the Illiana Expressway project.

“The Illinois Department of Transportation has agreed to let INDOT take the lead in protecting the investments both states have made in developing this project, and in keeping the project in hold status,” INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said in an email Thursday.

The April 25 filing in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois formalizing the agreement said that work is anticipated to be done by the end of July.

“Only the portions of the environmental documents identified in the U.S. District Court’s recent opinion as needing additional work will be addressed,” Wingfield said.

The agency has estimated reworking the document will cost less than $150,000.

INDOT never hid its willingness to proceed with the Illiana project, even after Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner gave the bistate project the cold shoulder shortly after assuming office in January 2015.

“Indiana has always been committed to the Illiana Expressway, and is ready to proceed with the project once Illinois is,” Wingfield said.

But that state is not ready.

“The approach in Illinois has not changed,” IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said via email Thursday. “We are not pursuing the project.”

The Illiana Expressway would be a 47-mile toll highway running between Interstate 65 in south Lake County and Interstate 55 in Will County, Illinois. The project’s cost is estimated at $1.5 billion.

In addition to preparing the Environmental Impact Statement, Indiana had purchased three properties in the corridor before Illinois’ suspension. The properties were purchased at the former owners’ request for a total of about $670,000, according to Wingfield.

The court actions involved a lawsuit filed by several environmental groups challenging the Environmental Impact Statement and its approval by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso ruled on June 16, 2015, that the federal agency’s approval of the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the states was “arbitrary and capricious and in violation of (the National Economic Policy Act).”

The Illiana Expressway Environmental Impact Statement included a flawed “no build” scenario, Alonso ruled.

A document must consider the impact of not doing the project, but according to the ruling, “it is not clear that the EIS contains a true ‘no build’ analysis.”

“Without such an analysis,” Alonso wrote, “it is impossible to determine the extent to which building the Corridor will increase traffic on existing roads and the impact such increased traffic may have on the study area.”

The document also did not adequately assess the impact of the Illiana on traffic on nearby state and local roads, did not appropriately address potential conflicts between the Illiana and regional land use plans, nor thoroughly evaluate the impact on Midewin National Tallgrass Priarie, the judge ruled.

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