State, federal officials to appeal Illiana Expressway federal ruling

In yet another sign the Illiana Expressway project may still have a heartbeat, state and federal officials have filed a notice of intent to appeal the recent federal court decision that ruled the federal government's earlier approval of the $1.3 billion project invalid.

The proposed 47-mile tollway would connect Interstate 55 in Wilmington to Interstate 65 in Indiana.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center – a major opponent of the tollway – said in a news release issued Monday the organization is “disappointed” by the Federal Highway Administration, the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Indiana Department of Transportation's decision to appeal.

The notice of intent was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division, according to the release. The notice had a Monday deadline.

The federal court had ruled that a critical piece in the Federal Highway Administration's record of decision – handed down late last year – was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated federal environmental law because the environmental impact study "did not substantiate the purpose and need" for the tollway project. The court ruled the study was based on a faulty "no build" analysis and failed to consider other alternatives.

ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner said he's disappointed the agencies are "continuing their fiscal irresponsibility with the boondoggle."

"The federal and state transportation agencies have a right to appeal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s in the public’s interest to do so,” Learner said.

The latest move by state and federal officials adds even more mystery to the controversial project after a series of contradicting moves from the Rauner administration.

In June, Rauner dropped the project from IDOT's multi-year plan, saying costs exceeded available resources amid a budget crunch. Then, in July, Rauner approved $5.5 million in spending on the Illiana, but his office said the money was allocated only to handle administrative costs associated with "putting the project on hold indefinitely."

Later that same month, the Rauner administration sought approval for tax breaks for building materials that would be used for construction of the Illiana and other projects.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly and IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell did not answer an emailed question asking how the state intends to pay for attorneys fees as officials move forward with the appeal process.

"This is a routine legal matter and does not change the administration’s decision with respect to the project itself," Kelly said in an emailed statement.

Kelly did not respond to a follow-up email asking if IDOT consulted Rauner before deciding to appeal.

John Greuling, president and CEO for the Will County Center for Economic Development, said he thinks the decision to appeal is a "good choice" in light of how much time was spent on the environmental impact study initially.

"My best hope is that this is the project that never goes away," Greuling said. "It seems to have this life. Every time it gets slammed down, it somehow finds a way to resurface."