Illinois seeks public input on I-66 route

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Metropolis, Ill., and Cape Girardeau might as well be on different planets as far as Clyde Wills is concerned.

Wills, a newspaper publisher in the Ohio River town of Metropolis, says he hasn't visited Cape Girardeau in years even though the cities are only 45 miles apart.

"It's virtually impossible to get across Southern Illinois," he said. Doing so requires traveling a confusing array of roads and making numerous turns.

That frustration and a desire to boost the local economy has Wills and other business leaders in Southern Illinois pushing for construction of Interstate 66 through their region. Wills co-chairs a volunteer group called Illinois I-66 Task Force. The group favors construction of a four-lane highway that would be part of an east-west interstate route and would link Paducah, Ky., across the Ohio River from Metropolis, with Cape Girardeau.

The Illinois Department of Transportation will hold a public meeting on the proposed project at Shawnee Community College at Ullin on Tuesday, the first step by IDOT to join an ongoing I-66 feasibility study involving the Missouri and Kentucky highway departments.

The open-house style meeting will be held from 4 to 7 p.m.

Counting costs

The feasibility study by Missouri and Kentucky, being conducted by a Louisville, Ky., consulting firm, has been underway for about a year. The completion date has been pushed back from June to September to allow Illinois highway officials to secure public input and provide traffic data.

An Illinois route would cross the Mississippi River on the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, which is nearing completion. Cape Girardeau civic leaders have lobbied for the I-66 route for years, but have been frustrated in the past by the disinterest of Illinois highway officials.

Former transportation secretary Kirk Brown rejected the idea when he headed up the Illinois Department of Transportation under governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan. Brown said the state didn't want to add costly miles or run an interstate through Shawnee National Forest.

But after Rod Blagojevich was elected governor last November, he appointed former Southern Illinois congressman David Phelps as assistant secretary at IDOT. Phelps is a longtime supporter of the project.

In March, Phelps and other Illinois highway officials expressed interest in the project, renewing the hopes of Cape Girardeau and Southern Illinois civic leaders.

The Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce has urged its members to write to IDOT to voice support for the project and to attend Tuesday's public meeting in Illinois.

John Mehner, Cape Girardeau chamber president, said he plans to attend the meeting to voice support for an Illinois route.

As part of the feasibility study, numerous public meetings have been held at the Missouri Department of Transportation office in Sikeston and at sites in western Kentucky.

Bruce Siria, project manager for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, has attended the meetings and plans to attend the Illinois meeting.

Metropolis publisher Wills views it as a "make it or break it" situation. "If enough people turn out and show support for further study on the highway, it has a future here," he said. "If little support is shown, the highway department will spend its time and money elsewhere."

Beth Ponce, program development engineer with IDOT in Carbondale, said her agency hasn't settled on a preferred route for the new highway through Southern Illinois.

Ponce said IDOT plans to provide the study consultants with information from the public meeting and traffic data by mid-July. Ponce said IDOT would proceed with a detailed route study if the ongoing feasibility study recommends that the highway be built through Illinois.

Some members of the I-66 task force in Illinois, which includes business leaders, tourism and economic development officials, believe the state should do its own feasibility study. Ponce said so far there's been no commitment by the state to proceed beyond the current study.

Wills' group wanted to bring a large map showing a possible route through Southern Illinois, but IDOT officials objected. Wills said IDOT officials worried that the public would view it as an official route.

Suggested route

The volunteer task force has proposed that the route enter Illinois on the Interstate 24 bridge at Metropolis and proceed north and then west to Interstate 57 and north on that existing interstate through the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge near Ullin before turning west again toward Cape Girardeau.

The ongoing feasibility study doesn't show a specific route through Southern Illinois. It notes with dots the locations of Cape Girardeau and Metropolis on a map, but no lines connect the two. The study has looked more closely at several possible routes that would bypass Illinois in favor of a more southern path.

Scott Meyer, district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation in Sikeston, said he expects MoDOT to support the preferred route as determined by the feasibility study.

Cape Girardeau and Sikeston civic leaders have disagreed over where the route should enter Missouri. A proposed route that would require construction of a new span over the Mississippi River near Wickliffe, Ky., would provide a more direct route to Sikeston.

Meyer said supporters of a particular route could take their case to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission or legislators if they disagree with the study.

Supporters of a Southern Illinois route say it would be the most practical.

"It makes sense to tie into the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. It's there," said Brad Genung, a spokesman for Shawnee Community College, whose administration wants to see the proposed interstate built in Southern Illinois.

College officials see the project as a way to boost enrollment and the Southern Illinois economy, which has a per capita income of only $16,104, well below the statewide average of $23,104.

"Our future is probably tourism, and ease of access is just key," Genung said.

Genung welcomed IDOT's new willingness to at least look at the highway project.

"The roadblock is gone. We'll see what happens."

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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