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Local News

Illiana highway ruling slowed by wildlife concerns

PORTAGE, Ind. – Federal approval for the Illiana Expressway toll road has been delayed by concerns from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partly over how the project might impact endangered species, an Indiana Department of Transportation project manager said.

James Earl told members of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission on Tuesday that federal officials have raised concerns about how the highway would affect endangered sheepnose mussel and the threatened long-eared bat, as well as its impact on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington.

The four-lane highway would run between Interstate 65 near Lowell in northwest Indiana and I-55 near Wilmington in Illinois, and be reserved for vehicles using electronic toll devices. It is expected to cost $1.5 billion.

Environmental groups have been talking about concerns about the highway since the first draft environmental impact study was in 2012, Andrew Armstrong, a staff attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center that has filed two lawsuits trying to stop the highway, told The Times of Munster.

"That we are now this far along in the process and we still don't have an opinion on endangered species, that just makes it obvious that this project has not received the thorough consideration it needs," Armstrong said.

John Greuling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development, said his main concern is how private investors interested in partnering with the state for the Illiana project will see this delay.

“A delay is a delay. My biggest concern is that if the environmental review is not totally completed to the satisfaction to the various environmental agencies, it would definitely impact the private funding partners that are taking a serious look at participating in the project,” he said. “This is a hurdle. It's not something to celebrate in my perspective.”

Greuling said he is concerned that months-long studies done by the transportation departments of both states will become obsolete if the environmental lawsuits go on too long.

“Studies have a shelf-life. At some point in time, an elongated lawsuit or a hesitation for a public or private partner to move forward could impact the project because the data they collected they used for the design or purpose could become outdated. And that's a problem,” he said.

Still, Greuling said the environmental review is “not terminal,” and remains optimistic.

Federal approval is now expected near the end of summer. The federal record of decision was originally expected by the end of May.

“I think this doesn't take us too off-course,” he said.

• The Herald-News reporter Lauren Leone-Cross contributed to this report.

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