PORTAGE, Ind. (STMW) -- A state transportation official said Thursday that work on the 47-mile Illiana Expressway is moving forward as officials await completion and approval of an environmental impact study.
James Earl, Indiana Department of Transportation project manager, told Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission executive board members that concerns raised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the $1.5 billion tollway's impact on the endangered long-eared bat and sheepnose mussel should be addressed by the end of September.
The federal agency also raised concerns on the impact to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois.
"We were hoping we could get through the process quicker," said Earl who added that preparations were still ongoing to identify a developer. He said talks were also held recently with Crown Point and Lowell over traffic concerns along the 12-mile stretch of the expressway in south Lake County.
Patricia Mussman, an Illiana opponent from West Creek Township, accused Earl of minimizing the draft opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the two lawsuits filed by environmentalist groups.
"It appears you're assuming the suit will go in favor of Illiana," Mussman said.
Earl said the highway planning must move forward "until we get a reason to stop ... Or a judge tells us to. We assess risk all the time."
State officials hoped to have the environmental impact process completed by the end of May. Earl said the law allows federal agencies 135 days to offer an opinion and that period will elapse in September.
Once the final environmental impact statement is completed by September, the Federal Highway Administration must issue a record of decision before work can move ahead. Earl expects a federal decision within four to eight weeks.
Earl said he anticipated road construction to begin in late 2015, but some officials hoped it could get started as early as this year.
Earl said an agreement on the toll charge has not been reached. Indiana plans to partner with a developer to build the highway as a toll road primarily for truck traffic.
The highway is estimated to cost about $300 million.
State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said the Indiana Finance Authority would determine the toll cost and input is being received from trucking companies.
The private developer that supplies the upfront capital to build and operate the highway will receive payments from the state. Tolls can be used to make the payments, but shortages must be made up with other funding sources.
"We know how much availability payment we can pay under the current tax structure," said Soliday. "There's no subterfuge here. We'll get the best deal we can get."
Earl said INDOT also sent letters to south Lake County landowners indicating an interest in buying their property for wetland mitigation, if it's required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Earl said the property owners aren't forced to sell their land. "If we show up and they say 'no,' we just go away," he said.
(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2014. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)
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