From Ill. to Va., fights over highway projects could steer traffic emissions

By Benjamin Hulac | 06/05/2015 07:58 AM EDT

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) and the Illinois Department of Transportation have shelved the Illiana Expressway, a proposed highway project reaching into Indiana, the governor’s office said in a statement Tuesday.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) and the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) have shelved the Illiana Expressway, a proposed highway project reaching into Indiana, the governor’s office said in a statement Tuesday.

"It is the determination of IDOT that the project costs exceed currently available resources," the statement said.

The department will remove the project from current plans and suspend contracts and purchases. In Springfield, the state capital, lawmakers are working to finalize a budget, and Rauner has ruled out raising taxes. Illinois and Indiana’s transportation departments estimated the project would cost $1.3 billion, though other projections have forecast estimates of more than $2 billion for the effort, also known as the Illiana Corridor.


"We believe this is as dead as we can expect," Kat Woodruff, national field director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), said of the project in a call from Illinois on Wednesday.

The controversial east-west toll road, which would stretch from I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana, skirting Chicago to the south with 47 miles of pavement, is the latest among several multimillion-dollar highway construction projects around the country to be derailed over financial pressures or lawsuits.

Critics of such construction argue that it’s financially and environmentally foolish for federal and state transportation agencies to spend millions of dollars on new roads — encouraging driving and, in turn, greenhouse gas emissions — when the need for new roads isn’t clear and the same agencies have often overestimated future driving growth in the past. Proponents, meanwhile, contend more roadways are needed to service a growing U.S. population, larger cities and increased freight volume.

Wis., Ill. lawsuits allege roads ignore environmental risks

In 2011, a nonprofit called 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which advocates on land-use and urban planning issues, sued the Federal Highway Administration, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and other related agencies to block the expansion of a two-lane highway — Highway 23 — to four lanes.

The group argued that the agencies hadn’t explored other options for the road, used a flawed method to forecast traffic volume and didn’t fully consider the environmental impacts more traffic would bring.

In a ruling handed down May 22, a Milwaukee judge, Lynn Adelman, halted the project, estimated to cost $146 million.

"The plaintiff points out that traffic volumes peaked in about 2005 and have been declining ever since," Adelman wrote. Explaining the nonprofit’s reasoning, he pointed to concerns over vehicle emissions and whether the road needed to be expanded at all.

"The plaintiff contends that there are reasons to believe that this trend in declining traffic volumes will continue well into the future," he added. "These reasons include the aging of the Baby Boom generation, a reduction in the percentage of Americans in the labor force (which translates into a reduction in the number of trips made to and from the workplace), and the fact that those in the Millennial generation are choosing to drive less than members of previous generations have."

Yet on May 26, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) approved $10.4 million for Highway 23. "The work involved grading and is the first of a series of projects that will expand 20 miles of WIS 23," the state transportation department said at the time. The expansion project is slated to be finished by 2019.

Advocacy and environmental groups have sued to block the Illiana project, too.

In May, in the latest salvo of legal maneuvering surrounding the project, Openlands, the Midewin Heritage Association and the Sierra Club filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Chicago against the U.S. Department of Transportation, FHWA and officials in both states, arguing that federal agencies approved the project without considering environmental risks and based their analysis on inflated driving forecasts and lofty population estimates.

"We know that, for the last 10 years, driving has been down," PIRG’s Woodruff said.

Since 1998, U.S. DOT has regularly overestimated how much Americans will drive and, in an about-face last May, the department said vehicles miles traveled (VMT) — a metric for how far vehicles on the road go — will grow half as quickly as they did during the past 30 years (ClimateWire, Jan. 13).

The U.S. Energy Information Administration also reined in its VMT forecast in 2014, over "changing in driving behavior" tied to age, gender demographics and lower driving rates among younger citizens.

‘A violation of trust’

Meanwhile, Philip Kingston, a city councilman in Dallas, is dead set against the Trinity Parkway, a proposed six-lane tollway that would snake through the city.

Like the Illiana expressway, the Trinity project is based on a public-private partnership, or a P3 model, and Kingston said the highway, which he estimated would cost between $1.5 billion and $1.8 billion, would saddle taxpayers with a bill they didn’t sign up for.

"It was sold to the people as being privately funded," he said. "So it’s a violation of trust."

And in Virginia’s southeast corridor, another planned toll road, also funded through a P3 system, that would run along U.S. 460 is on hold.

In mid-April, Virginia terminated its contract with the private firm it had worked with on the project — U.S. 460 Mobility Partners, which had entered into a $1.4 billion contract with the commonwealth in 2012.

By entering into a long-term contract to own and operate a toll road, any private firm would take a substantial amount of risk — exposed to rises and falls in traffic flow, threatening its revenue stream.

Virginia has spent about $256 million on the road, which has not been built, and will try to get the money back from 460 Mobility Partners.

"VDOT tried to work with the contractor to deliver the revised project in a cost effective manner," Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said in an April 15 statement. "These efforts proved unsuccessful. The state will aggressively pursue all options available to do what is best for the public interest."

The state-by-state battles come as Bureau of Transportation Statistics data show that nationwide, VMT dropped about 2 percent from 2007 to 2012 and per-capita driving dropped in 44 states. Alabama, Indiana, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Ohio were the outliers.

The country’s transportation sector is the second-most-polluting sector, behind power generation, accounting for about 27 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions, according to U.S. EPA.