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Openlands v. The Department of Transportation

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Third Division

May 23, 2018

OPENLANDS, an Illinois Not-for-Profit Corporation, and SIERRA CLUB, a California Not-for-Profit Corporation, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
THE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, an Illinois State Agency; ANN L. SCHNEIDER, Her Official Capacity as Secretary of Transportation; THE BOARD OF THE CHICAGO METROPOLITAN AGENCY FOR PLANNING, an Illinois Municipal Corporation; and THE METROPOLITAN PLANNING ORGANIZATION POLICY COMMITTEE, an Illinois Public Agency, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 14 CH 6630 The Honorable David B. Atkins, Judge Presiding.

          JUSTICE LAVIN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Fitzgerald Smith and Howse concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶1 Plaintiffs-appellants Openlands, an Illinois not-for-profit, and the Sierra Club, a California not-for-profit, appeal from the trial court's order granting summary judgment to the Illinois Department of Transportation (Transportation Department), the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (Chicago Metro Planning Agency), and the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee (MPO Policy Committee). In granting defendants' motion, the court thereby denied plaintiffs' dueling summary judgment motion and sanctioned further progress on the Illiana Tollway project, a proposed 47-mile, billion-dollar tollway, running from Interstate 55 in Illinois to Interstate 65 in Indiana. Plaintiffs have objected on the basis of their taxpayer status and argument that the tollway expenditures violate Illinois law. Their reason for the challenge, however, is that the tollway development and accompanying traffic would allegedly jeopardize the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which runs near the southern boundary of the proposed tollway project. Plaintiffs ask that we reverse the trial court's judgment and grant their motion instead. For the reasons to follow, we affirm.

         ¶2 BACKGROUND

         ¶3 The Chicago Metro Planning Agency and its governing board (Chicago Metro Planning Agency Board or Board) is a special district "unit of government, " which was created by the Regional Planning Act (70 ILCS 1707/1 et seq. (West 2014)) to address transportation challenges in northeastern Illinois. The other key player in this case is the MPO Policy Committee, a federally designated organization under the Federal-Aid Highway Act (23 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. (2012)) that also addresses local transportation matters. Metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) exist in urban areas with a population of over 50, 000 people and are formed generally by agreement with the governor and units of local government, or otherwise by state or local law. Id. § 134(d).

         ¶4 Pursuant to the aforementioned transportation statutes, in March 2007, the Chicago Metro Planning Agency and the MPO Policy Committee entered into a memorandum of understanding identifying the "working relationship between the two boards" with respect to the northeastern transportation system, acknowledging that both state and federal law controlled. The agreement covered the geographic "metropolitan planning area as defined by the Regional Planning Act" and by federal regulations and thus included northeastern counties, plus additional counties under the MPO Policy Committee's authority. See id. § 134(b)(1), (e); 23 C.F.R. § 450.104 (2014) (defining "metropolitan planning area" as that defined by the MPO and governor to identify where the metropolitan transportation planning is carried out); 23 C.F.R. § 450.312(a) (2014) (the metropolitan planning area encompasses the entire urbanized area plus any contiguous area expected to become urbanized within a 20-year period and the metropolitan planning area may be further expanded to encompass a statistical area defined by the federal budget office).[1]

         ¶5 Consistent with the statutes, the parties agreed that the Chicago Metro Planning Agency Board would develop "an integrated comprehensive regional plan" and the MPO Policy Committee would develop "long-range transportation plans and transportation improvement" for the Chicago metro area. Indeed, federal statutes provide that an MPO must adopt both long-range "metropolitan transportation plans, " with a planning horizon of 20 years, known as MTPs, and short-range "transportation improvement programs, " known as TIPs, which are updated every four years, in metropolitan areas. See 23 U.S.C. § 134(c)(1) (2012); 23 C.F.R. §§ 450.322(a), 450.324(a) (2014). For federal funding, the transportation project must be included in both the long- and short-range planning for the region. See 23 U.S.C. § 134(c) (2012).

         ¶6 The memorandum of understanding between the parties stated that "federal regulations require the MPO to approve various plans, programs and related documents" but that the Chicago Metro Planning Agency Board would be the body to develop those plans, programs, and documents. The Chicago Metro Planning Agency Board was to receive input and recommendations from various groups/committees, and the Board "will then forward its recommendation with comments to the [MPO] Policy Committee, which will act upon that recommendation. The [MPO] Policy Committee will take final action as required by federal law." A footnote in the memorandum of understanding document states it was subsequently reaffirmed in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2015. Finally, the footnote says it was revised and affirmed in March 2015 as well (although it is unclear as to what was revised).[2]

¶7 Here, in 2010, the MPO Policy Committee adopted a long-range metropolitan transportation plan, which apparently also encompassed a short-range forecast, called the "GO TO 2040" plan, which the Chicago Metro Planning Agency Board likewise determined would serve as its comprehensive regional plan. According to a federal report, the "GO TO 2040" was Chicago's first comprehensive regional plan in more than 100 years, addressing an array of issues like transportation, housing, economic development, open space, the environment, and quality-of-life matters in the region's 284 communities.

         ¶8 Several years later, in 2013 and 2014, the Transportation Department sought to amend the "GO TO 2040" plan to include the Illiana Tollway project. See 23 C.F.R. § 450.104 (2014) (an "amendment" is a "revision to a long-range statewide or metropolitan transportation plan, [and] TIP" and includes "the addition *** of a project, " requiring public review and comment). The Chicago Metro Planning Agency voted against this amendment, while the MPO Policy Committee voted contrarily to include the Illiana Tollway in the "GO TO 2040" plan and also voted to approve the short-term plan to include the Illiana Tollway.[3] In addition, the head of the Transportation Department similarly voted in favor of the amendments, having obligated about $40 million in state funds towards the Illiana Tollway with a proposed investment of much more and with the concomitant goal of obtaining federal financial aid. In their briefs, the parties have not parsed out exactly how the "GO TO 2040" plan or the tollway project would be funded. Nonetheless, they have stated that the Illiana Tollway is a "fiscally constrained" capital project, meaning that both the long- and short-term federal plans contain "sufficient financial information for demonstrating that projects" in the plan "can be implemented using committed, available, or reasonably available revenue sources." See id. The parties likewise have not identified exactly how the tollway project would be constructed, such as who would oversee the building project, actually build the tollway, or the exact role of the Transportation Department in the project. Nor have they detailed exactly how the governing boards plan to negotiate transportation matters with Indiana. In short, the briefs give short shrift on details in this very niche area of law.

         ¶9 In any event, following the MPO Policy Committee's vote in favor of the Illiana Tollway, plaintiffs filed suit, ultimately landing on an amended complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief to preclude the tollway's development in an effort to protect the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and other natural resources they claimed would be adversely impacted by the tollway project. Plaintiffs alleged that the Chicago Metro Planning Agency Board violated section 60(c) of the Regional Planning Act (70 ILCS 1707/60(c) (West 2014)) by failing to adopt a regional transportation decision-making process to ensure that all MPO plans, reports, and programs were approved by the Chicago Metro Planning Agency Board prior to final approval by the MPO Policy Committee. As a result, the MPO Policy Committee had "no authority to consider or approve" the Transportation Department's amendments to the "GO TO 2040" plan to include the Illiana Tollway as a "fiscally constrained" capital project. Accordingly, they claimed the MPO Policy Committee's vote to amend the plan was not authorized under section 60(c) and hence any development was not authorized. Plaintiffs claimed they would be harmed as taxpayers due to the illegal use of public funds and their use of natural resources adversely affected.

         ¶10 The Transportation Department filed an amended answer to the complaint and asserted affirmative defenses. It contended the metropolitan transportation plan amendment was proper and valid, while also admitting to continue state fund expenditures in planning for the Illiana Tollway.

         ¶11 The parties then filed cross-motions for summary judgment. As in their complaint, plaintiffs claimed the amendments to the "GO TO 2040" plan violated the Regional Planning Act and were unauthorized, void, and without legal effect. They argued the Transportation Department was barred from developing the tollway and asked that the trial court declare the MPO Policy Committee vote void and Transportation Department expenditures unauthorized with an injunction against further spending.

         ¶12 The Transportation Department filed a motion for summary judgment in response. The Chicago Metro Planning Agency Board together with the MPO Policy Committee also filed a separate summary judgment motion. As with its affirmative defense, the Transportation Department asserted that plaintiffs' state law claims were preempted by the Federal-Aid Highway Act. It contended section 60(c) of the Regional Planning Act could not limit the MPO Policy Committee's federally-prescribed procedure of adopting long- and short-range plans for the Chicago metro area. As such, it argued section 60(c) was unenforceable. The Chicago Metro Planning Agency Board and the MPO Policy Committee added that the approval power conferred through section 60(c) was "advisory" and not binding. They argued this interpretation preserved the constitutionality of the statute and avoided any possible preemption problem. Citing ...

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