I-66 project still being discussed in region

Monday, December 10, 2001

In a seemingly losing battle to build an Interstate 66, chief lobbyist Walt Wildman says he will take what he can get -- even if it means the highway wouldn't go through Cape Girardeau.

A feasibility study long ago deemed the cross-country highway impractical and too costly as a federal project, but the U.S. Department of Transportation encouraged 13 states to examine how the department could participate.

Wildman proposes that if it were to be built, I-66 should fall less than 20 miles short of reaching the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge across the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau and instead be rerouted south to Sikeston, Mo., which would require a $100 million river bridge. This route would take the highway around Shawnee National Forest, a major sticking point for Illinois.

"But we'd be that much closer to having a bridge that actually goes somewhere," said Wildman, who lobbied for the interstate highway for years as executive director of the I-66 Project Inc., but now does it on a volunteer basis out of his Cape Girardeau home.

Wildman says his proposal is a temporary measure that would appease Illinois transportation officials, who have been the biggest obstacle to the project as it relates to Cape Girardeau. Eventually, he said, a new stretch of highway could connect I-66 and Cape Girardeau -- and thus Cape Girardeau and Paducah, Ky., -- after a shift in Illinois' political climate.

Wildman's plan calls for 25 miles of new four-lane highway to be built from Metropolis, Ill., to I-57, which is less than 20 miles from Cape Girardeau. That would make the I-66 route start in Paducah, continue into Illinois on I-24, then head west on the new portion of roadway between Metropolis and I-57.

It would then follow I-57 south to Sikeston and west to Van Buren, Mo., via U.S. 60.

In 1991, the U.S. Department of Transportation looked at I-66 as a coast-to-coast highway dubbed the "East-West Transamerica Corridor" that would alleviate traffic on other highways.

Serious in Kentucky

Now Kentucky is serious about building its portion of the highway and it wants to connect to Missouri, either by way of Illinois to Cape Girardeau or directly to Missouri via Sikeston.

Staunch opposition from Illinois Department of Transportation officials -- chiefly IDOT secretary Kirk Brown -- has largely quashed the project as far as the Cape Girardeau route is concerned.

For years, Brown has said the project raises environmental concerns if the route goes through Shawnee National Forest and has refused to even pay for a feasibility study.

That was reiterated at a Sept. 13 meeting hosted by the Missouri Department of Transportation that was attended by Sikeston and Cape Girardeau representation and transportation officials from Missouri and Kentucky.

"IDOT's participation in a feasibility study would raise expectations that a route will be constructed through Illinois," Brown wrote in a letter that was distributed at the meeting. "I believe this would be an imprudent use of IDOT resources given the obstacles facing an alignment of this route through Illinois."

Would miss forest

But Wildman said his proposal calls for the highway to stop just short of Shawnee National Forest. "I'm not optimistic that he'll like this proposal any better," Wildman said. "But he'll have to come up with a better excuse."

Wildman points out that Kentucky would build portions of I-66 through Daniel Boone National Forest.

"It can be done safely and without hurting these places," Wildman said. "But Kirk Brown doesn't see it that way. I honestly don't think we'll have our highway until he's no longer in that job."

Bill Green is director of Economic Development for Sikeston. He said he was open to Wildman's idea, but he didn't think Illinois would go for it.

"I think it would be a return to the same place we were before," he said. "The Kentucky transportation folks are convinced that Illinois has no interest in the project whatsoever. They're really not interested in any way, and I'm not sure how Walt's proposal addresses their concerns."

Green said Sikeston's I-66 proposal mirrors a Kentucky plan that calls for building a $100 million bridge to connect Sikeston and Wickliffe, Ky., allowing it to go through Kentucky along any route it wants -- one that may not even include Paducah.

Green said the bridge could be built with federal money.

smoyers@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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