U.S. District Court judge declares Illiana Expressway federal approval 'invalid'

Ruling: Impact study did not consider alternatives, relied on 'faulty' forecasts

Considered by some to be a potential nail in the Illiana Expressway project's coffin, a U.S. District Court judge Tuesday ruled the federal government's approval of the $1.3 billion tollway project is invalid.

A critical piece in the Federal High Administration's record of decision — handed down late last year — was “arbitrary and capricious” and violates federal environmental law, according to U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso.

The action doesn't put a definite end to the bi-state tollway project linking Interstate 55 in Illinois to Interstate 65 in Indiana. But in declaring the federal record of decision and the Tier I environmental impact study invalid, the decision sends Illinois and Indiana transportation officials back to square one without money or backing from the governor's office.

Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said via email Tuesday the state agency is still reviewing the ruling and "exploring our options at this time."

“This is a victory,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which brought the suit to U.S. District Court on behalf of several regional environmental protection groups.

The decision handed down Tuesday noted the federal government's approval of the expressway was based on a faulty "no build" analysis, and failed to consider other alternatives.

“The flawed 'no build' forecast is the foundation for the agencies’ projection of future traffic in the study area and their conclusion that the existing roadways cannot adequately serve the future transportation needs,” the decision stated.

Because that analysis does not substantiate the purpose and need, the FHWA’s approval of the ROD and final EIS is arbitrary and capricious and in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, the ruling added.

The court Tuesday granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.

Learner said the decision is “well-grounded,” and should be viewed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, who singled out the project earlier this year by placing it on hold, as “the last straw.”

“Rauner had already put the Illiana on terminal life support. The state doesn't have any money to pay for it,” Learner said.

Stacy Myers, with Openlands Chicago, said the ruling is a “tremendous step forward” for those opposed to the project. She said the ruling "called out" flawed and exaggerated population projections, noting the analysis thereby fails to justify the need for the road.

Supporters have said the controversial $1.5 billion tollway project — which would serve as a 47-mile east-west link from I-55 in Wilmington to I-65 near Lowell, Indiana — would relieve congestion on local roads and promote economic growth.

Critics have called it a "boondoggle" that could leave taxpayers footing the bill if revenue projections fall short.

The Federal Highway Administration put its stamp of approval on the project in December, but the Illiana hit a snag when Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner announced that all state transportation projects – including the Illiana — were on hold pending further review.