Will official: No drawn-out legal battle over Illiana
BY CINDY Wojdyla CAIN email@example.com July 16, 2013 8:06PM
John Greuling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development, reacts to a lawsuit filed last week by conservation groups to block the Illiana Expressway. Greuling shows on a map how the proposed tollway would relieve congestion on Route 53 along the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. | Cindy Cain~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 19, 2013 2:15PM
Will County’s top economic development official said Tuesday that he doesn’t want the Illiana Expressway’s looming legal battle to last as long as one for the Interstate 355 extension through Will County.
“If there are environmental issues that need to be vetted, we should do it,” said John Greuling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development. “But let’s get it done in a timely fashion. There is no reason for this to (be) a 10-year process.”
The I-355 extension was ready to roll in 1996 when environmental groups sued to protect endangered Hines emerald dragonflies that nested near a portion of the road. The legal action delayed the extension and it didn’t open until 2007. In the end, an I-355 bridge was built at a higher elevation to protect the insects.
But resolving the risk to the dragonfly took too long, and it caused the cost of the road to soar, Greuling said.
He added that he wasn’t surprised that a coalition of conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit on July 10 to try to block the Illiana Expressway from being built. The deadline for such challenges to the road’s Tier 1 environmental plan was July 15.
“The timing was pretty much what I expected,” Greuling said.
The lawsuit — filed by Openlands, Sierra Club and Midewin Heritage Association — claims that there is no demonstrated need for the road, and it will damage state and federally protected natural resources.
Greuling said he will marshal local forces to fight to get the Illiana built more quickly once environmental issues contained in the lawsuit are resolved.
“We will in fact bring together stakeholders that are supporting this road, much like we did for the I-355 extension,” he said. “I anticipate we will see a pro-Illiana organization come forward on this.”
The 47-mile road, which has been recommended to be a tollroad, would stretch from Interstate 55 in Will County near Wilmington to Interstate 65 in Indiana. Both states agreed to use a public-private partnership financing method to get the road built, estimated to cost $1.3 billion, and Illinois transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said she was hoping to get Illiana construction started by late 2014.
While there are no Hines emerald dragonflies along the Illiana route, the lawsuit says there are other flora and fauna that could be harmed by the expressway, including federally endangered eastern prairie fringed orchids and sheepnose mussels, and state-listed endangered Franklin’s ground squirrels and Blanding’s turtles. The tollway could also unseat nesting bald eagles in the area, according to the conservation groups.
Greuling said the Illiana is needed to move truck traffic coming from two intermodal terminals in Joliet and Elwood, which form the largest inland port in the nation. The road is meant to reduce congestion on local roads and make local roads safer for drivers.
Transportation officials in both states say the tollway will create an estimated 9,000 construction jobs and about 25,000 long-term jobs through development.
The lawsuit says the road’s cost may be underestimated and the number of jobs it will create may be overestimated. Also, the lawsuit says the expressway goes against many regional development plans.
Will County Board Member Judy Ogalla (R-Monee) who represents eastern Will County, said “it’s criminal” how fast the Illiana was pushed by the Legislature. She said it shouldn’t be built at all because it will harm farmers who are cut off from their fields and it will disrupt eastern Will County residents by dead-ending many roads.
“I think we need to look at our existing roads and improve those (instead),” she said. “I think we need to be smart about our land resources. They’re not renewable.”