Something on the bottom of my shoe could have led to a federal investigation.
I was walking the I-355 extension project a few weeks ago, and no matter how carefully I stepped it still felt like I was carrying myself with a degree of reckless abandon. After all, dragonflies have been known to dart around at a haphazard pace. On this site, stepping on one of them would open up a floodgate of paperwork. If anyone sees one that has blown its last fire breath, an official report must be filed.
The Hine’s emerald dragonfly owns a spot on the federally endangered species list. It also owns a few spots along the Des Plaines River Valley, which will hold the heart of a 12.5-mile project—a 1.5-mile bridge which will help connect I-355 with I-80. The transportation strip is a vital piece of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s $5.3 billion Congestion-Relief Program, which carries the hefty task of reducing travel times in the Chicagoland area.
Back to the dragonfly. See, I warned you about its tendency to spring up out of nowhere. In order to protect this federally approved endangered species, the Illinois Tollway, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flew through a formal consultation on the effects of the I-355 extension. Through what was called a “highly streamlined consultation process,” the three groups reached agreement on a number of conservation actions that will create and restore the dragonfly habitat, advance understanding of the species and help determine the extent of the habitat that is occupied by the dragonfly. The process was saturated with administrative hustle. Monthly meetings were scheduled, and when those involved weren’t at the table, site visits were taking place. The tollway even put together a team of scientists, planners and engineers to expeditiously address agency concerns regarding the project design. Plans were modified to protect the little buggy. While traveling the site, I was told the original idea was to have the bridge as high as 50-60 ft. Concrete at that altitude would have created a serious flying hazard for the dragonfly, so officials decided to elevate the structure to 90 ft. The contractor also must stay within a certain footprint throughout the valley.
This co-op did not have any trouble growing wings. All parties involved stayed in close contact and ripped off all of the right answers in a relatively small time window. Yes, it just may have been streamlining at its finest, but let’s take a look at the messy buildup before calmer heads prevailed. Back in August 1996, the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club filed suit against the project in the U.S. District Court. Nine years later, crews broke ground.
If officials are calling this an environmental streamlining success, then this is another example of a false positive. Even if all sides involved in the actual construction pushed it through with vigor, what is really being accomplished if the court system is able to dangle it in the air for almost a decade? Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea if the Sierra Club approached the discussion table instead of approaching the bench. If the owners are refused to talk, perhaps some sort of mediator should have stepped in. After all, this was a work stoppage. It’s just like airline pilots walking off the job. Somebody needs to put their foot down—just be careful of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly.