It must be said. A road in the midst of construction is an awesome sight.

In June, John Oldenburg, Director of Natural Resources at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, took me for a drive along the route of the new I-355 extension, which will, when completed in 2007, connect Interstate Highway 55 to I-80 and run through DuPage, Will and Cook Counties. In an ethanol-powered SUV from the Forest Preserve fleet, we turned off Joliet Road onto Bluff Road — just a mile from Oldenburg’s house — and pulled onto the curb.

We stood in the weeds, midway up a hill overlooking the Des Plaines River Valley. To our right and left, we saw the lush green flora of the Keepataw Forest Preserve. Directly below us: construction crews and a half dozen orange metal piers jutting 90 feet into the sky. When completed, the piers will support a mile and a half bridge that will span two canals, two railroads and the Des Plaines River. Behind us, at the top of the hill, the crest of the new road: four massive concrete pylons supporting a hundred-yard cross-section of reinforced concrete. It felt like looking up into the teeth of a tidal wave.

Oldenburg discussed the impact of the road on his nearby turf, just a few yards from the road’s boundary. Some concerns are obvious: air quality and runoff, others less so. Winter will bring massive quantities of salt that will mix with water and wash into the nearby forest preserves. Oldenburg cites the example of the northern corridor of I-355, which runs adjacent to several forest preserve areas that contain wetlands. “We documented and provided evidence that those systems changed dramatically,” Oldenburg says. “They became so salt laden, they lost significant biodiversity.”

Though we stood just a few yards from the forest preserve, the air was dominated by the drones and beeps of construction vehicles, the crunch of gravel and clouds of dust. The scene and discussion unsettled Oldenburg enough that he took out a cigarette and began to puff nervously, surveying the activity below. When he finished, he carefully stubbed out the butt, rubbed away the ash, and placed the filter back in his pocket. It’s hard to imagine that the dozens of construction workers who occupy the hill are quite as careful.

According to recent census data, growth in the Chicago metropolitan area is intensely uneven, with the most rapid expansion happening in the areas farthest from Chicago. Between 2000 and 2005, Cook County’s population declined slightly, while Will County grew by 28 percent and Kendall County, which lies outside the traditional six collar county region, grew by 45.8 percent, making it the third-fastest growing county in the country.

The lure for homebuyers in these areas is clear: open space and — most importantly — affordability. Median home prices in Kendall County are rising more slowly than anywhere else in the metro region. But the benefits of the ex-urbs come with a cost. The swelling townships bring choked local roads and long, infuriating commutes, the solution to which seems obvious: more roads.

Roads are so ubiquitous — within the six-county region there are more than 4,000 miles of highway, not counting municipal streets — they tend to blend into the scenery. But while the environmental impact of dams, housing developments, and industry may be more obvious, the impact of roads can be just as, if not more, profound.

In a Chicago region with a rich set of ecosystems already under constant threat from the runoff of urbanization, more roads mean less biodiversity and fewer high-quality natural areas. The I-355 extension is the largest new road construction project in the area, though with its completion now a done deal, local environmentalists have turned much of their attention to another proposed project 20 miles west. The Prairie Parkway, which would run north / south and connect I-88 and I-80, will also cross the Aux Sable and Big Rock watersheds, which contain two of the highest quality streams in the entire region. But stopping the project won’t be easy, thanks to its heavyweight supporters. In last year’s budget reconciliation process in Congress, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert managed to win $207 million in federal money to fund construction of the road, which would sit wholly within his home congressional district.

In other words, the deck is pretty well stacked.

Back in the car on our way to DuPage Forest Preserve headquarters, Oldenburg and I sit in traffic on Lemont Road. “ I do this every day,” he says, gesturing towards the trail of brake lights in front of us. “Getting from Point A to Point B is a major hassle.” Unfortunately, he says, “there’s no way to turn back the clock to a different approach to regional planning.”

The Texas Transportation Institute’s most recent Urban Mobility study found the Chicago region to be the third-most congested in the country. Average commuting times have been increasing every year. One of the main contributors to the traffic snarl is a disconnect between where the jobs are, mostly centered around O’Hare Airport and the northwest suburbs, and where houses are being built, in northern Kendall, western Kane, and Will Counties. The rationale for the I-355 extension is to move traffic north and south through the suburbs more efficiently for inter-suburban commuters.

But will it work? Most evidence points to “no.” When it comes to new roads, the law of unintended consequences tends to rear its ugly head in the form of something transportation planners call “ induced travel.” “When you build a piece of infrastructure, the sheer fact that it’s new and uncongested attracts more travelers than otherwise would have chosen to travel,” explained Robert Puentes, who studies transportation planning at the Brookings Institution.

While the effect is often dependent on a variety of factors, a spate of studies confirm the basic point: building more roads creates more traffic. In a widely cited paper on the topic presented in 2000, co-authors Robert Noland and William Cowart surveyed the statistical evidence for induced travel effects and concluded that the literature “strongly implies that pursuit of congestion reduction by building more capacity will have short-lived benefits.”

Induced travel matters a lot to conservationists because the single most important argument in favor of road construction is traffic reduction. The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (ISTHA) promotes the 1-355 south extension as part of its Congestion Relief Plan. But if a new road doesn’t reduce traffic for more than a few years, then why suffer the costs? According to Trisha White, director of Defenders of Wildlife’s Habitat and Highways program, roads are nearly all cost and no benefit. “When it comes to the impacts of our natural environment, pollution, roadkill, all that stuff, it never hits the radar screen.”

White says there are several major ways in which highways negatively affect adjoining habitats. The most obvious and clear is the destruction that takes place when a road is built: ground cleared, trees cut and torn, swaths of open land razed and raked. Then, once a road is built, cars traveling on it become supreme predators for any creature that lives in the area. “Everything from the small things you don’t see when you run over them,” says White, “to the very big things that cause accidents.” Like, for instance, deer. Last year, in Cook County alone, there were 881 crashes caused by deer. And that’s just what’s reported.

But even when local fauna manage to avoid the death rush of the automobiles, the very presence of roads — and the development they bring — subdivides habitats into fragmented parcels that often become unable to support thriving, diverse populations of animals and plants. “One of the axioms of nature is, the bigger the area you look at, the more species can survive there,” says Ron Panzer, a biologist at Northeastern Illinois University who studies prairie habitats. Panzer explains that as you survey smaller and smaller patches of habitat, the dropoff in the number of species it can support is far more severe than proportionality would suggest. In other words, a 10-acre tract of land won’t just have one-tenth the species of an 100-acre tract, but rather one-twentieth or one-thirtieth. This fragmentation effect, he says, “has contributed to the biodiversity crisis” in the region.

Much of the reduced biodiversity in fragmented habitats is due to the simple fact that some species — grassland birds, for instance, like the endangered Henslow’s sparrow — need uninterrupted expanses, a minimum of 75 acres, in order to live and breed successfully. In fact, ideal conditions for it and other species like the bobolink and grasshopper sparrow would be in the neighborhood of 1,000 acres, something nearly impossible to achieve in a region criss-crossed by highways.

The creation of “edge habitats” that are inhospitable to native species also plays a role in reduced biodiversity. “The smaller the ratio of volume to perimeter for a given habitat, the less ecological integrity the habitat will have,” says Marcy De Mauro, director of planning at the Forest Preserve District of Will County. “Roadways create edge habitats,” says De Mauro and because these edges have different conditions than interiors, “they become a stepping stone for invasive species to colonize.”

Around Chicago, the edge effect is exacerbated by an increase in groundwater temperature that results from water running over warm asphalt. The polluted runoff attracts invasive species like phragmites and reed canary grass, and kills off native species like blue joint grass and cord grass.

I-50 and I-88 are just two small parts of the nation’s 47,000-mile interstate system, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this summer. IDOT’s spokesperson says the idea of connecting the two was first floated in the 1960s, and has been included in Chicago Area Transportation Study future projections for decades. But moving a road from idea to reality is no small process. “It’s pretty amazing when you realize it’s been in the works for so long,” says ISTHA spokesperson Joelle McGinnis.

Environmental concerns about new road construction aren’t new. Indeed, opposition to roads through valuable natural areas characterized some of the very first victories of the modern environmental movement. In 1969, with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a modicum of environmental sensitivity was enshrined into law.

The NEPA process mandates federally funded road projects can only proceed after a thorough study of possible environmental effects is published in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In order to proceed, road planners then follow a three-pronged approach to ecological issues — first, they are to attempt to avoid particularly valuable or sensitive areas. If such areas can’t be avoided (in and of itself a controversial proposition, but more on that later), then effects are to be minimized, and if the effects can’t be minimized, they are to be mitigated. That usually means some kind of habitat restoration outside of the roads’ effected area intended, like an act of generosity proffered by someone with a guilty conscience, to offset the road’s environmental sins.

In 1993, after receiving authorization from the legislature to move forward with the I-355 extension, ISTHA and IDOT commissioned an EIS that surveyed every thing from effects on water quality to possible alternate routes and effects on endangered species. The preliminary studies identified the presence of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly, recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as an endangered species.

Originally thought to be extinct, a specimen was found in 1988 near Lockport Prairie in Will County, a region of the Des Plaines River Valley south of Romeoville. Since that time, biologist Dan Soluk has tracked the insect in Wisconsin and in Chicago Wilderness, finding specimens in Waterfall Glen and the Keepataw Forest Preserve, which sits just a few yards from the bridge I saw on Bluff Road. “I’ve observed adults crossing the alignment in previous years,” Soluk says. “We observed them doing that in 1996 and ’97 and last year as well.” It’s unclear whether they’ll be able to continue crossing that stretch once the road’s been completed.

Soluk estimates that in the Chicago region there are probably between 1,000 and 3,000 individual insects. “It’s a rare species,” he says. “We’re not talking about elk, or mountain lions, we’re talking about an insect and that’s a low, low population number for an insect.”

The Hine’s dragonfly lives in small rivulets of groundwater that flow among cattails and sedges in prairie wetlands. Soluk says much of this habitat has been lost as wetlands have been drained for agriculture, groundwater swells have been paved over, and invasive species have crowded out native plants that are critical food for the Hine’s. So rare is the dragonfly that the FWS took additional steps to designate critical habitat for it in July.

In its original EIS, ISTHA acknowledged the presence of the Hine’s, but argued that there was no way to route the road without passing through the Des Plaines River Valley. But the Sierra Club wasn’t satisfied that ISTHA had adequately considered alternate routes, and in 1996, the organization filed suit in federal court. Unwilling to spend the money on a long and possibly costly legal battle, ISTHA went back and reevaluated alternate routes, producing a new draft EIS in 2000. It concluded that the original route, which runs along the Cook and DuPage County forest preserves, and right through the Will County forest preserves, was, indeed, the only viable one. In a phone conversation with Rocco Zucchero and Angela Laporte, who’ve overseen the project for ISTHA, I asked if the outcome of even the modified EIS wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Did the agency really pursue the revised study in good faith?

“We didn’t do it in a vacuum,” said Zucchero. “People have no idea the amount of coordination there was with other agencies. It was a real hard evaluation and it came right back down to where we were."

Zucchero and Laporte both pointed to the work ISTHA was doing in concert with different agencies to mitigate the harm the project might do to the dragonfly’s habitat. They’ve put together a Hine’s emerald dragonfly working group to assess where best to restore habitats friendly to the dragonfly. Currently, the project plan calls for 122 acres of habitat restoration and creation.

Soluk is enthusiastic about this aspect of the project. While currently there are only a few of the Hine’s specimens in Keepataw preserve, through habitat creation, Soluk says they’ll be able to “create the optimal hydrological regime” for the insect, one with adequate ground water flow that can support a much larger number of species. “That aspect, I think, is very positive.”

Viewed through the lens of the NEPA, the I-355 process emerges as a kind of model outcome. ISTHA made the relevant changes, reached out to the relevant partners and now is working dutifully to make sure the Hine’s’ emerald dragonfly will have ample habitat. But the highway will still be built right through protected natural areas that harbor rare plants and animals. So this prompts the question: if I-355 south extension represents the NEPA process at its best, then maybe there’s something wrong with the whole orientation of the process itself?

While people like Soluk and De Mauro are generally positive about the specific mitigation and restoration plans for the I-355 extension, nearly everyone I spoke to expressed frustration with the general inadequacy of mitigation as a means of preserving vibrant ecosystems. Because mitigation projects simply create an “island” of habitat, they don’t solve the fundamental problem of fragmentation, and because the habitats are created from scratch, separated from other natural areas, they require intensive management in order to maintain a high-quality ecosystem. Additionally, small parcels of intensively managed mitigation habitats are a relatively new phenomenon, largely brought on by the passage of NEPA. It remains to be seen how sustainable such habitats are over the very long term.

And then there are the environmental effects that, as of this writing, are not being mitigated. Oldenburg is particularly concerned about the effect that de-icing salt is going to have on the Wood Ridge Forest Preserve, which is adjacent to a significant portion of the road. After salt is dispersed in the winter, cars pulverize it into a fine dust, which wind gusts can then disperse as far as 500 meters from the road’s edge. The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County predicts that as much as 69 acres of the preserve (one-third of the total area) will be affected — detrimentally — by these salt plumes.

In a document submitted to ISTHA as part of the NEPA process, the District surveyed available data on salt effects and found “that the influx of salts (as dust or solution) into roadside habitats leads to degraded ecosystems, lower plant and animal species diversity, opens up communities to invasive salt-tolerant species, and exposes organisms to other toxins.”

“The bottom line was that [ISTHA] agreed that there were going to be impacts,” said Oldenburg. But the only way to determine the extent of the effects, they told him, would be to commission a study once the road was completed. “There are better designs, better alternatives,” Oldenburg continued, “whether it’s a heated roadbed, or a canopy, things that have been tried throughout the US, Canada and the world. But it seems that in the whole scheme of things, the direct development costs can be packaged as the ‘cost of the project,’ and the operational costs for plowing and de-icing can be absorbed over the long run.” This means that design options that would have positive environmental effects, and could conceivably be cost-saving over the long run, never even get considered.

In a recent conversation, one local conservationist summed up many of her colleagues’ frustrations with the entire process. “They did a study and found this really rare species,” she said with exasperation, “and then what did they do? They built the road anyway!”

“It appears to me,” says Oldenburg as we pile back in the car and peel away from the construction site, “that natural resources are always looked at as the obstacle.”

The Web site for Citizens Against the Sprawlway features an illustration of a grimacing giant in a suit steamrolling his way through farmland. As he leaves a trail of cars and asphalt in his wake, dozens of Lilliputian farmers tug on ropes hoping to bring the behemoth to a halt.

Given the clout of business leaders and elected officials who are often the most vocal supporters of new roads, the illustration nicely captures how the opponents of highway construction must feel. One sunny Friday in June, I drove out to visit Citizens Against the Sprawlway’s Jan Strasma, a public affairs officer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who lives in Maple Park.

“It’s a real amalgam of people,” Strasma says, describing the group. “You’ve got environmentalists, you’ve got farmers, you’ve got people who live in Big Rock or Kaneville and value the small town community and know that if development comes, particularly rapid development, they’re going to lose that.”

When I meet Strasma in his house, an elegant, atriumed affair set on 12 acres of land that he and his wife have planted with native prairie grasses, he is laid up. He’d fallen a few weeks earlier, while trimming a tree in the yard, and his leg is covered in a cast, raised and set on a coffee table. Middle-aged with a tranquil but intense air, a throw-back moustache and the vague whiff of the ex-hippie, Strasma and his wife moved west from Wheaton in 1993, when it began to succumb to sprawl. The couple, who’ve adorned the entrance to their house with a sign chiding Hastert, are determined to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself 30 miles west.

The Prairie Parkway would connect I-80 and I-88 just south of Plano, west of the Fox River. The proposed route would run through a 35-mile stretch of farmland, crossing through two watersheds and several of the highest quality streams in northeastern Illinois. But while local conservationists fret at the impact on water quality, real-estate developers are salivating at the prospect of providing northern Kendall County with access to the interstate.

In a talk at the American Planning Association in June, Anthony Flint, author of the book This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America , noted that, with regard to lifestyle and land use, there are now two Americas. “One is rediscovering the convenience and benefits of more concentrated development,” he said. “The other is sprawling more than ever, not thinking much about the future and fighting for the right to do so.”

Drive through northern Kendall county, through Plano and Yorkville and you’ll see housing developments sprouting like weeds, rising up from cornfields. Water towers replace silos, barns give way to armies of identical frame houses wrapped in Tyvek insulation .

Strasma and others opposed to the Prairie Parkway refer to the project as the Sprawlway because it captures just what they find so terrifying about the future the highway might help to usher in. What is now a near-idyllic picture of cornfields, family farms and native prairie will be converted into the mini-malled, asphalt-covered landscape of exurbia.

“The next town to the south, Sugar Grove, is very aggressive in their view towards development,” said Strasma, shaking his head almost imperceptibly. “It’s added thousands and thousands of homes, much the same as Yorkville is doing.” He frowned then continued. “There’s a little village called Virgil that has 300 people. Some local landowners and developers proposed a 1,500-acre development with 8,000 people. This is a village that has one part-time employee!”

For Strasma, all this is happening much too fast. And if the I-355 extension is an example of the sometimes glacial pace at which road projects often proceed, the Prairie Parkway shows that, with the right backers, certain projects can move at warp speed.

“The support is coming from Dennis Hastert,” says Strasma. “He’s the 800-pound gorilla in this fight. Back in the early days of the fight, county board members were getting personal phone calls from Dennis Hastert...when he calls, county board members listen.” (Recently Hastert’s support for the project has come under increased scrutiny since it was revealed that he sold property near the proposed parkway for a profit of $2 million.)

Though the road’s supporters point to an august pedigree — Daniel Burnham’s 19th-century vision of a looping road connecting the farmland around Chicago — the Prairie Parkway in its contemporary form has been kicking around for only about five years. In 2001, Hastert instantly turned the project from vague speculation to an actual possibility when he secured $17 million in federal funds for a feasibility study. This mobilized the forces of support and opposition. The project received another injection of energy this past year when Hastert managed to secure more than $200 million in federal funds to start construction. IDOT is now working its way through the NEPA process, holding public hearings and preparing a draft EIS.

The road’s supporters claim, not implausibly, that development is going to happen with or without the road, and why not get out ahead of what are sure to be colossal congestion issues? On my drive out to see Strasma, I took Route 47 north from I-88. The two-lane road moved fairly quickly, despite periodic lights, until we hit freight tracks, where we stopped for 15 minutes as a train passed. Despite the fact I was on time and had no reason to be anxious, I found myself slamming the steering wheel repeatedly in frustration.

Here’s where the chicken and egg relationship between roads and development becomes crucial. Sure, development’s happening without the road, says Strasma, but putting it in, along with a series of interchanges, is just going to accelerate the process and completely transform the area. The alternative he favors is to spend federal money on improving and widening existing roads, like Route 47, to improve traffic flow without throwing open the doors to massive development. In Indiana, for instance, the Environmental Law and Policy Center found that upgrading existing roadways, rather than building a new highway, would save taxpayers $1 billion — and add only ten minutes driving time over a 150-mile trip.

“The absurdity is beyond understanding,” says Strasma. “They can’t maintain the roads they’ve got. They have $207 million that doesn’t say ‘Prairie Parkway.’ It could just as easily be used for Highway 47...It makes more sense to have a variety of ways to move traffic rather than putting all the eggs in the Prairie Parkway basket.”

If there’s a single place in a local ecosystem where development makes itself most known, it’s in the water. Every inch of concrete poured covers a patch of land where rain water once soaked into the ground and back into the water table. Once an area undergoes development, rain water washes into sewer systems, carrying with it pollutants from the surface and ending up in local streams and creeks. With the water running over the pavement, the temperature of local streams increases, and ecosystem health degrades.

Furthermore, the development and construction that comes with new roads releases silt into streams that collects and causes creek-bottom rocks to embed, which robs a number of species, like darters, sculpins and stonefly larva, of the under-side habitats they enjoy.

As currently conceived, the Prairie Parkway would cross through two watersheds, the Big Rock and Aux Sable, and cross Big Rock Creek three times. Steve Pescitelli, who monitors stream quality for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), refused to speculate on what the specific effects of the Parkway might be, but he explained why there’s a well-documented correlation between road construction, development, and a decline in stream quality.

You get a lot more runoff a lot quicker, carrying a lot more contaminants from roads,” he said. “So the streams become flashy, they’re a lot more prone to flooding. Even without flooding, they go up faster and come down faster so they get this flush, which may not affect the fish so much, but affects the food chain, the little bugs that live on the surface.”

In 2002, Pescitelli and his colleagues surveyed Big Rock Creek’s quality and graded it an ‘A.’ “It turned out to be one of the highest quality streams in northeastern Illinois, if not the entire state,” Pescitelli says. “It’s a fairly high gradient stream, the slope of the stream, which tends to get really high species diversity. It has a lot of groundwater flow. There’s a lot of seeps and small springs that come out of the bluffs. It has really cool water in the lower parts of the creeks and it has continuous flow.” Pescitelli identified a number of relatively rare fish species — mottled sculpin, dace, and even the rare greater red horse — that make their home in Big Rock.

In order to see this first-hand, I drove out to Blackberry Farm in Kane County on a pristine Saturday morning to meet up with Tom Schrader. A one-time accountant and trainer at Arthur Andersen, Schrader lost his job in the wake of the Enron scandal, and landed for a time with the IDNR. He’s now vice president of Friends of the Fox River, which has been active in fighting the Prairie Parkway.

“Accounting,” he said to me with a smile, “is pretty boring.”

Schrader is jovial and earnest, with a large bearing and prominent lower lip. He actually bears more than a passing resemblance to his nemesis, Denny Hastert. And, like Hastert, he’s an avid fisherman. Growing up in the area, he started fishing as a boy and his knowledge of local fish species is encyclopedic.

We started the morning in Blackberry Farm, where Schrader and IDNR’s Bob Rung were hosting a fish-shocking event. They rowed around a pond and then waded through a nearby creek, shocking the fish before netting them and showing them to about a half-dozen families with small children that had come for the event. The stream, Schrader said, had lost much of its ecological diversity in the last 30 years. “ Blackberry Creek was my home creek when I was a kid,” Schrader said. “The whole creek was clear of silt. But construction comes in and the rocks get embedded. There were smallmouth bass all over the place, all kinds of darters. Not anymore. That’s what we’re afraid will happen with Big Rock Creek when that area gets developed out there. You’ll see the difference between this and Big Rock Creek, which is the next stream west in the watershed.”

A little later, Schrader drove me along the parkway’s proposed route, occasionally pulling over and hopping into one of the local creeks to net a few fish, and point out the wide differences in quality between them. “This water’s probably 75 degrees,” he said, wading into Welch Creek just outside Kaneville. “Down in Big Rock in Plano the water is 62 degrees and it will be 62 degrees in the middle of August when it’s 95 out cause you get a lot of groundwater discharge and you get a lot of higher quality fish in the cooler water, sculpin and all kinds of darters.”

When we got to downtown Plano, where the creek runs behind a baseball diamond, Schrader jumped in and started immediately grinning at the bounty of rare and “intolerant fish,” that is, fish that only exist in high quality streams. “Beautiful!” he said, netting a bright green banded darter, before spotting an even-rarer northern hog sucker. “These are very intolerant,” Schrader said with pride. “You hardly see them anymore.”

As we drove back to Blackberry Farm, Schrader pointed to his left, tracing the route of the road. All I could see was corn, barns and silos. The thought that this would be covered by a multi-lane highway seemed as ludicrous as the prospect of a skyscraper or football stadium. But of course, roads follow a logic different than that of real estate. Like the baseball diamond in “Field of Dreams,” they create their own users.

Build it and, sure enough, they will come.