Environmental Impact Assessments Don’t Have to Be Wise, But They May Not Assume Their Conclusion

In an important decision last week, United States District Judge Jorge Alonso rejected the Environmental Impact Statement for the Illiana Corridor Project, Illianawhich would connect I55 in Illinois to I65 in Indiana. (And why Illiana?  Why not Indianois?)

The two key criticisms were raised by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in Illinois and Indiana.  First, they argued that DOT used a “market-based” population forecast that showed much faster growth in rural areas than the “policy-based” forecast used by the planning agencies.  As best as one can infer from the decision, it appears that the planning organizations want to drive growth in existing urbanized areas, rather than in currently sparsely populated rural areas.

The Court acknowledged that given

the MPOs’ legal mandate to develop long-range transportation plans for their areas and the influence they wield over local land use decisions through those transportation plans, it would seem unwise for the Agencies to reject the MPOs’ population forecasts.

Nonetheless, DOT won this issue.  In a commendable show of judicial restraint, the Court deferred to DOT’s choice, because it “articulated reasonable, if not persuasive, reasons” for using the market-based forecasts.

The second issue was the killer for DOT.  The Court concluded that DOT’s no-build scenario in fact assumed the development of substantial transportation improvements, including the “potential construction of the Illiana Expressway”.

Oops.  That’s a no-no.  The agency can’t put the impacts of the project under consideration into the no-build scenario.

Although the Court remanded the EIS to DOT, I  think that this case may prove to be more help to road builders than to opponents.  It’s not really news that the transportation agency can’t base its forecasts for the no-build alternative on growth that will result from implementation of the project.  On the other hand, conflicts between transportation agencies and other planners are common and the decision strengthens the transportation agencies’ hand in resisting the suggestions of planning agencies.

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