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$350 Million Road Controversy

Thu, 29 Aug 2013 04:01:19 CDT
By: Charlie Schlenker

$350 Million Road Controversy The idea of an east side highway allowing Interstates 55 and 74 to connect has had significant resistance for more than twenty years. Though such a road is not much closer to construction than it was two decades ago, protests continue. WGLT's Charlie Schlenker has more on the proposal for a freeway roughly joining Towanda and Downs.

Growth projections, modeling, route mapping, environmental impact assessment, study task forces, local government bodies voting the idea down then reviving it...hot and anguished debate by home and landowners about the impact of such a road; all these things have happened before and are playing out again in the twin cities. The latest cause for action is the prospect of Bloomington, Normal, and McLean county government voting on a preferred alignment for an east side highway. In spite of the long history, residents of the Harvest Pointe, Grove, and other residential developments seem surprised they are in one of those potential alignments.

"That subdivision is going to be effectively trashed if, in fact, semis are running through our subdivision."

Harvest Pointe resident Hal Jennings says it will cost a fortune in condemnation fees to build the road on the westernmost potential route. But, the other alignment further east is not an easy sell either.

"I think it's a crime against creation to even consider tearing this up for a highway."

Frank Wieting lives and farms further east and wonders when in the last several hundred years have humans created more farm ground.

"We can build houses. We can build factories. We can build highways, but we can't produce mother nature's land. On the east side, this is the most highly productive that you can find anywhere.

Even those who say they see benefits to the road become reluctant when they have to commit. Republican McLean County Board member Ben Owens says the $350 million project would create a lot of construction jobs. More important, for Owens is an upgrade to the area's status as a transportation hub.

"It's an easier access point off of 55 that could potentially bring people and make our airport grow. People would much rather come to Bloomington, Central Illinois Airport than maybe going up north to O'Hare or maybe Midway."

You might think with such a feeling, Owens would be a safe vote for the project when it comes up for the route choice late this year or early next. Not so.

"People in my district have said no they don't want it. And that's the vote that I will cast."

The east side highway is not necessarily a partisan issue. County Board Member Chuck Erickson defines himself as a conservative Republican who almost always favors cutting government spending. Yet, Erickson says he's torn on the massive highway project.

"I think one of the core functions of government is to build infrastructure. I think that's something government does well and I think that's something government should do."

Meanwhile, Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner, a staunch Democrat before he won the non-partisan post, opposes the project saying he is unconvinced the area needs it. Renner says he worries about urban sprawl.

"It was a mindset that yes let's just spew out to the east. There are many other ways for us to grow."

A recent analysis of Bloomington sewers, Renner says, shows horizontal growth is very costly compared to infilling and encouraging vertical growth.

"We currently, Bloomington and Normal are physically the size of San Francisco. Now San Francisco is pretty compact and they have 700,000 people. Now we have about a hundred thousand people in an area the size of 700,000 people and I think we can think more in the future about how we grow."

Supporters of the road say it's nice to encourage building up not out. But, in a free market system, it is likely people will still want big lots and big new homes, and encouraging growth in one area does not mean growth won't happen elsewhere. And farmland owners will eventually sell if the price is right. Matt Sorenson is the McLean County Board Chairman and a fairly lonely voice among elected officials. He's campaigning to move ahead with choosing a road alignment rather than killing the idea...again. Sorenson says it boils down to whether you have an optimistic view of the future of the community, or not. He compares this to what happened when two guys sat around in Bloomington and told themselves they thought a small insurance company called State Farm was going to take off.

"They were crazy to start talkin' about a highway 51 beltline. But they did it. I can't imagine Bloomington Normal and McLean County today without Veterans Parkway. I guess, here we are in 2013 we're pretty darn happy that there was a lunatic sittin' around in a coffee shop in 1950 something."

Sorenson says you can define the east side road in several ways, the next layer of Veterans Parkway, the 74 beltway around Indianapolis, or the path around Peoria.

"Ultimately municipalities that are growing, metro centers that are growing, need transportation infrastructure, in them, through them, and around them.

Many are unconvinced. Jeff Prell lives in a potentially affected area.

"State Farm, Bridgestone, every single business that we have in this area is not a growth business. You can only grow as much as the jobs that you have in an area and where they are in that life cycle."

Sorenson says the Town of Normal was the fastest growing community in the state last year. Bloomington was in the top ten. All agree, Unit Five Schools are bursting at the seams.    

"A lot of this stuff is not poof brought up out of air. There is a lot of people checking this data. Federal people, a lot of federal folks, a lot of state folks are looking at it too."

Jim Karch is the Public Works Director for the City of Bloomington. He says he understands people bought property with the intention of living there for the rest of their lives, or that they feel a deep and spiritual connection with the land they farm.

"It's tough to balance that emotional need with some of the studies, some of that information."

Karch says the projections do indicate in town traffic will eventually require such a road to let off urban pressure. And he says negative attitudes about similar issues in the past eventually eroded.

"Why would you build out further than the dropoff that was the end of the world that was Veterans Parkway at the time? And there was a time that Towanda Barnes was Christopher Columbus, you would never go past it. People would die at the end of it....the reality of it is from a transportation standpoint when we fail to plan, we plan to fail."

Dusty Burton lives in rural McLean County just east of the metro area and says growth does not necessarily support a huge new road.

"Bloomington Normal, even though it may continue to grow, I think it is peaking out as far as its expansion."

If that is so, McLean County Highway Department Engineer Eric Schmidt argues, there is no down side to picking an alignment.

"If the need's not there it will not be built. If there is not the growth, it will not happen. That type of funding is so significant that if there is not a need, It's not gonna happen. It's hard enough sometimes to find funding for needs that are immediate."

Elected officials stopped consideration of the massive potential project before, saying they did not see a need. County Board Chairman Matt Sorenson says it's critical that not happen again. He says policy bodies need to reserve right of way by choosing an alignment now, not twenty years from now.

"Because I think the number of people potentially affected by any route of way, is just gonna keep going up."

Rural resident Dusty Burton grudgingly buys some of that logic.

"Even though it would affect me more if it were one of the proposals were farther out, if it ever develops, and if it's ever needed, that to me would make more sense. And obtaining of right of way would probably be much more reasonable further out."

But as public outcry has again proved, whenever it comes, the decision will be a tough vote, a vote it seems no elected official really wants to take, either way. I'm Charlie Schlenker.

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