MISSING 51 7 Politics helped shelve U.S. 51 work By Pantograph itaff SPRINGFIELD In August 1978, the Illinois Department of Transportation had come far enough in planning an interstate-like route between LaSalle-Peru and Normal to request federal approval of the design. But 11 months later, the request that had gone to the federal Highway Administration was withdrawn, and only part of it from Interstate 80 north of LaSalle to U.S. 51 southwest of Oglesby was resubmitted. Construction of that section, which includes the bridge over the Illinois River, was approved July 9, 1979. But the Oglesby-to-Normal stretch is still In limbo. IDOT officials now estimate it will be 1986 before a new study of that corridor is complete and another proposal might go to the federal government. According to officials Involved in the 1979 decisions, a combination of economic and political factors contributed to scuttling the request for design approval of the Oglesby-to-Normal segment Vocal groups Farm groups had become vocal, arguing that too much farmland would be taken out of production for roads some considered too elaborate. The McLean County Regional Planning Commission and the McLean County Farm Bureau opposed a highway built to Interstate standards north of Normal because of the farmland that would be destroyed. And in 1980, Governor Thompson issued an executive order calling for the preservation of as much farmland as possible in state projects. Two years later, the Legislature wrote that doctrine into statute books. IDOT also was getting an early taste of what has become a common aggravation for transportation officials the lawsuit syndrome. File lawsuit Planning for the 32-mile section of the replacement for Illinois 121 from Morton to Lincoln had been completed in 1974, but an owner of Tazewell County farmland along the route filed a federal lawsuit claiming that IDOT did not study enough design alternatives to see whether less farmland could be taken or a less elaborate design approved. IDOT is only now seeking court and federal approval for a revised design that officials think will meet the test but 10 years have gone by. Besides the farm opposition in 1979, Gene Mccormick, director of planning and programming for IDOT, said there was not enough money for the full Normal-to-I-80 project anyway, so the controversy . caused a decision to break the project in two. That way, some progress could be made. The northern section was submitted, in part, because "there was no major opposition to the piece north of McLean County," said Allan L. Abbott, chief of location studies for IDOT. Illinois Secretary of Transportation John Kramer made the decision to build the road north of Oglesby to interstate standards with limited access while building the section of U.S. 51 from Bloomington south to Decatur as a four-lane expressway, with unlimited access. Plans approved Kramer said he approved those plans because choices had to be made to get something done. "It was my concern that people had been talking about building a full freeway (interstate-like road) between Rockford and Decatur and nothing had been built," he said. "There wasn't funding to build any section between Rockford and Decatur, and the residents of Central Illinois were being left with a two-lane highway that was clearly inadequate for their needs. I wanted to get it off dead center." Kramer said the 51-mile stretch from Oglesby to GOVERNOR'S REASONING Normal was the last to be considered because the other sections were more heavily traveled. He also said Thompson listened to IDOT's recommendations about the project. "The governor really deferred to the department's judgment," Kramer said. Thompson has a similar recollection of the pullback. "There was a controversy between agricultural interests which had seen roads built in the state in the past that unnecessarily took prime farmland," he said. Other issue "But that wasn't the only issue. The other issue, as I recall It, back then, for the southern leg (from Bloomington to Decatur) was how quickly the road could be built, and what added benefits in terms of transportation or commerce were to be gained by building it to full interstate standards versus the modified standard that eventually was decided upon. "And I think we concluded that there was no gain in safety standards or in commerce available by going full interstate and the cost was cheaper by going modified (expressway), so it seemed like a sensible solution. I mean you don't want to build an interstate highway if an Interstate highway is not needed." IDOT officials are paying attention to the Illinois Valley Chamber of Commerce in LaSalle-Peru and other groups, such as the McLean County Economic Development Council, which have joined the effort to have the 51-mile Oglesby-to-Normal segment built to interstate standards. Resolutions endorsing "Missing 51" as a freeway have been adopted by the cities, towns or villages of Leland, Streator, Earlville, Cedar Point, Tonica, Dana, LaSalle, Oglesby, Mendota, Naplate, Dalzell, North Utica, LaRose, Peru, Wenona, Lacon, Spariand, Granville, Mark, Hennepin, Standard, Minonk, Rochelle, El Paso, McNabb, Kappa, Bloomington, Hudson, DeKalb, Rockford, Normal, Kangley and Sheridan. Similar resolutions also have been adopted by the townships of LaSalle, Manlius, Mendota, Otter Creek, Peru, Evans, Henry, Richland, Ottawa, Brookfield, Dimmick, Serena and south Ottawa. Organizations adopting resolutions endorsing "Missing 51" as a freeway include the Streator Area Economic Development Corporation, McLean County Board, General Telephone Co., LaSalle County Republican Central Committee and the LaSalle County Democratic Party. "It's a hot political issue," said Kramer. "What frankly seems silly to me is that groups are choosing up sides now before all the facts are known and before It's known which parcels of land will be Involved and if a compromise can be reached." Those people choosing sides apparently included the governor. On a question-and-answer session on Chicago's WBBM radio station in March, Thompson was asked his views on "Missing 51." His response was: "Well, first of all, you tell me: Are you guys going to insist that we build it to full interstate standards? Because if you keep insisting on that, it's going to take longer, and will probably never happen. If you'll take a modified freeway like they have down in the Decatur area, we'll get the job done faster." Richard Adorjan, director of public affairs for IDOT, said advocates of Interstate standards for the "missing 51" miles have been "completely mis representing what an expressway is" by comparing in expressway to old U.S. 66. He said old VS. 68 was built to what can be considered very minimal expressway standards. If IDOT designs an expressway today, he said, safety features are more prominent Through cities But Abbott said the expressway would still go through cities instead of bypassing them, speed limits would be reduced, and there could be at-grade railroad crossings and stoplights. Advocates of an Interstate designation for the "missing 51" argue that drivers coming off a long stretch of interstate would enter a dangerous situation on an expressway because of the turning lanes, speed limits and stoplights. Although he was careful not to show a preference for either road design, Abbott said that danger would be greater at Oglesby than at Normal. At Normal, he said, drivers would go through some sort of redesigned interchange where U.S. 51 and 1-55 now meet, so the transition would help make drivers more alert. At Oglesby, he said, there would be no interchange, and some adequate warning would have to be devised. "We do have to solve that problem," he said. A sign would likely not be enough, he added, because "people don't read signs." Purely for safety purposes, Abbott said, "99 of 100 engineers will tell you it's better to build a freeway (than an expressway). But you can't do that anymore. There are all these other considerations." But, he said, while the old U.S. 66 design statistically had about twice the number of accidents as an interstate, the facts are not yet in on the modified expressway design IDOT is now using. Abbott estimates that a mile of interstate would cost $3.5 million to $4 million to build, and a modified expressway would cost about 15 percent less. But, he said, "It's not going to be cost that decides this. It's going to be the analysis of the Impact on the people." State Sen. Roger Sommer, R-Morton, has a segment of the "missing 51" from Normal to Minonk in his district. He said people In the small communities that U.S. 51 now passes through are worried about the impact on their towns if the road is moved. He said be would like to see a full discussion of human Impacts of a new road before a design is chosen. Highway needed "I think the highway is needed, but people ought to be consulted," he said. While some wonder why a new two-year design study is needed, Abbott said, the Oglesby-to-Normal design mapped out in the 1970s was about a half-mile west of the existing U.S. 51 and did not Include use of the existing road. The Decatur consulting firm of Homer Chastaln & Associates was awarded the study contract in August with instructions to investigate how much of the existing roadway could be used in a new alignment. - Whatever comes of the situation, IDOT officials and others Involved agree that any new road will be safer than the existing route. "The old highway is much more dangerous than any kind of new highway interstate or modified standards," Thompson said. "The old highway discourages rather than encourages commerce, and It seems to me that's what the ultimate decision Is going to have to be not one new design versus another new design, but what's the best new design versus what we've got now that we want to get rid of," he said. And partly in response to allegations that any expressway is unsafe, Abbott said, "We will not build an unsafe highway."
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