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Environmental groups sue to stop Illiana Tollway

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Chicago environmental groups filed a lawsuit Thursday to stop the proposed $1.3 billion Illiana Tollway linking northern Illinois and northwestern Indiana, claiming the Illinois Department of Transportation doesn't have authority to develop it.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center filed the suit in Cook County Circuit Court on behalf of the Sierra Club and Openlands. It contends that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's policy committee erred when it voted in October to include the tollway in its long-term development plan for the region, even though its own board of directors had already derided it as an expensive boondoggle and voted against it.

The lawsuit claims board approval is necessary under Illinois law, and IDOT cannot legally circumvent that.

"The Illinois Department of Transportation is violating Illinois law by spending public funds on the proposed Illiana Tollway," because of the board's rejection, said ELPC Executive Director Howard A. Learner.

The lawsuit asks a judge to rule that IDOT cannot spend public funds on the proposed 47-mile roadway, which would link Interstate 55 in Will County, Ill., and Interstate 65 in Lake County, Ind.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence claim the tollway would help speed goods by truck, reduce congestion and create thousands of jobs.

State officials say private investors will be sought to pay most of the cost for building, operating and maintaining the road under a 35-year deal, with tolls repaying state debt. They have said it could take up to 18 years for the tolls to start generating a profit, but the state eventually could reap up to $500 million.

Even so, the upfront public cost would be significant — hundreds of millions of dollars — for land acquisition and other costs.

The planning agency's board of directors said the roadway would have minimal impact on economic development and that toll revenue would fall short, leaving taxpayers on the hook for up to $1.1 billion. Environmentalists and landowners say it would destroy important farmland and wildlife habitat.

Environmental groups also have filed a federal lawsuit, claiming the Federal Highway Administration violated the law by approving an environmental study that failed to adequately assess potential impacts to endangered wildlife, critical habitat and other sensitive areas, and was based on inflated population and jobs projections. They also complain that the tollway would lead to urban sprawl.

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