On the slow track

Nick Stroman

Despite a packed house of attentive and concerned Tri-County residents, the only noise at the kickoff meeting for the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Eastern Bypass Study was a few thunder claps and some falling rain.

The open-house style meeting at Countryside Banquet Facility July 29 had large crowds gathered around enlarged maps of the Tri-County area that would be affected by the proposed four-lane highway connecting I-74 with Illinois Route 6.

Much of the crowd gathered for the IDOT slideshow and formal presentation were eager to voice their opinions on the bypass topic. However, they were surprised to discover after 30 minutes there was not a question and answer opportunity.

“So I guess they’re just going to do it and we don’t get to say anything?”

“Why don’t they fix the roads we have now before worrying about building new ones?”

These were just a few of the grumbles heard while the crowd filed out of the facility into the puddle-filled parking lot.

Citizens could put those concerns in ink as everyone in attendance was encouraged to fill out comment cards or get involved by filling out an application for the Community Advisory Group which will act as a liaison between IDOT and the communities affected by the bypass.

IDOT wants to find someone from every walk of life that would be affected by the project, including farmers, business owners and homeowners. This can help planners understand how each community will benefit and be impacted before any decision is made.

“Everyone in this room needs to be represented somehow and can help us define the corridor the bypass will inhabit,” said Eric Therkildsen, IDOT program development engineer.

The deadline for Community Advisory Group applications is Aug. 11.

The project is currently in the corridor phase which will take about two years to complete.

Provided there is adequate funding at the time and a corridor is identified, the alignment phase would follow, which is a three-year process.

The alignment phase is when several alternative route locations and design concepts within the preferred corridor are discussed.

They are drawn with more detail during this phase to show the effects on each community and the environment. This is when they decide to build or not to build based on all the positives and negatives presented. If they decide to build, it moves on to the design phase.

“Both these stages would include taking the next almost 5 years to come up with a basic design concept and trying to minimize impact and maximize our benefits,” noted Therkildsen.

He added some of these impacts would include what churches, fire routes or environmental concerns would be affected near the bypass route and how traffic patterns and volumes would change in the future.

“Safety and mobility for all modes of travel are always our top concern and you also want to preserve the scenic, economic, and natural factors that already exist in each community,” said Therkildsen.

“That’s when we would make the build or not to build decision,” he added.

IDOT is working with Chicago-based H.W. Lochner and Terra Engineering of Peoria to conduct the studies.

The entire “ring road” project could bring a price tag of nearly $1 billion, with most of that cost being the construction of a bridge.

“We don’t really know where that bridge is going to go yet though,” said IDOT Deputy Director of Highways Joe Crowe.

Only about $3 million has been secured by IDOT so far. Congressman Ray Lahood (R-Peoria), according to Crowe, considers the eastern bypass a top transportation priority for the region and is looking into future federal funding.

Talk of the proposed eastern bypass dates back to 1969 when East Peoria started a comprehensive study on the topic.  Another attempt was made to get support for the corridor in 1998, but public input was not considered.

“I think the public not being allowed in the decision-making process really hurt us last time so that cast a general negative feeling around the bypass,” said Therkildsen.

The cities of East Peoria and Washington were two of the loudest voices of opposition 10 years ago because previous corridor proposals cut through the Illinois Central College campus in East Peoria and the Wal-Mart and Menard’s underway in Washington.

With the new preferred routes, Washington and Chillicothe drivers would have easier access to I-74.  The city of Pekin has also expressed interest in linking to the future bypass route by extending Veterans Drive to the north.

As for East Peoria and other communities such as Morton and Peoria, their benefits along with the impact on other surrounding Tri-County towns would be determined over the course of the next two years, according to Crowe.

There will be two more public information meetings in 2009 to update the status of the project and to receive more comments and suggestions.  In addition, a formal public hearing will be held near the end of the study in 2010 to receive and officially document public statements about the preferred corridor.

IDOT also plans to send newsletters out to citizens in the communities affected to update them on the progress if they are unable to attend meetings.

To learn more about the eastern bypass study or to get involved, check out IDOT’s website dedicated to the study at  www.easternbypass.com.