Cape bridge is critical factor in I-66 route

Thursday, June 26, 2003

The Cape Girardeau area's interest and hopes for Interstate 66, a proposed east-west highway that could link Cape Girardeau and Paducah, have been revived, thanks to a change in Illinois governors.

Under the previous administration of Gov. George Ryan, there was little interest in the coast-to-coast highway that was designated by federal law to go through Illinois. Several reasons were cited: no funding, environmental concerns, crossing a national forest, low population density in the affected area.

Under Ryan, the state never actively opposed the I-66 project, but nothing was done to encourage or study the Southern Illinois corridor or determine the economic impact such a highway would have.

As a result, Illinois was out of the I-66 equation, which gave rise to hopes in Kentucky that I-66 might be rerouted to the Wickliffe, Ky., area and then into Missouri, even though such a route would require the construction of a new bridge across the Mississippi River.

But when Rod Blagojevich was elected governor of Illinois last year, everything changed. Blagojevich is not only receptive to the construction of I-66 through the southern end of his state, his administration -- through the Illinois Department of Transportation -- is scrambling to protect the Illinois piece of the I-66 pie.

A public meeting sponsored by IDOT was recently held in Ullin, Ill., drawing about 400 supporters and opponents to the Southern Illinois route.

Supporters say I-66 will bring desperately needed jobs to Southern Illinois. Opponents say the highway isn't needed and would destroy the rural landscape of Southern Illinois.

But it won't be a meeting in Ullin that decides the fate of I-66 in Illinois. Rather, it will be who has the most clout in Washington.

The Cape Girardeau Area Industrial Recruitment Association already has realized this by hiring a consultant to lobby for the Southern Illinois route in Congress as it drafts a new federal highway spending bill.

The consultant is Lonnie Haefner of St. Louis, who was involved in developing the proposal for I-66. The original federal legislation specified the new interstate's route, which had the highway coming from Paducah to Cape Girardeau across Southern Illinois, not across western Kentucky. Haefner will lobby federal lawmakers to stick to that language in the new bill and require the highway to be routed over the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge at Cape Girardeau.

A strong argument can be made for the Southern Illinois route over the western Kentucky route because of the bridge situation. A new bridge is nearing completion in Cape Girardeau that could accommodate a coast-to-coast interstate highway. Building a new bridge near Wickliffe would also require miles of elevated highway across the marshes on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. As a practical matter, why would Congress be interested in spending millions of dollars -- perhaps as much as half a billion dollars -- for a new bridge when the Cape Girardeau bridge is just being completed?

A final decision on the I-66 route will come down to who can make the most convincing case in Washington. Kentucky is concluding an I-66 study -- with some participation from the Missouri Department of Transportation -- that is sure to conclude that the western Kentucky route is best. But the Cape Girardeau area has a convincing argument that the new highway should come into Missouri across the new bridge.

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