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Four-lane highway project named 'Southwest Illinois Connector'

  • This map shows the Jackson County to St. Louis Metro East corridor that was studied for a four-lane highway in 1967, 1976, 1986, 1995 and 1996. It was previously known as the Southwest Illinois Tollway.

    This map shows the Jackson County to St. Louis Metro East corridor that was studied for a four-lane highway in 1967, 1976, 1986, 1995 and 1996. It was previously known as the Southwest Illinois Tollway.
    Pete Spitler/Du Quoin Call

  • Four County Highway Coalition Chairman Marc Kiehna (left) speaks with State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) prior to Tuesday's meeting. The pair are looking at an informational sheet about the highway proposal.

    Four County Highway Coalition Chairman Marc Kiehna (left) speaks with State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) prior to Tuesday's meeting. The pair are looking at an informational sheet about the highway proposal.
    Pete Spitler/Du Quoin Call

  • Four County Highway Coalition Chairman Marc Kiehna holds a letter of support he had received from Imo's Pizza. The letter was dated Jan. 22.

    Four County Highway Coalition Chairman Marc Kiehna holds a letter of support he had received from Imo's Pizza. The letter was dated Jan. 22.
    Pete Spitler/Du Quoin Call

 
By Pete Spitler
pspitler@localsouthernnews.com
updated: 1/25/2018 2:43 PM

EDITOR'S NOTE: See a video from the meeting on the Du Quoin Call's Facebook page.

PINCKNEYVILLE -- The four-lane, Murphysboro-to-Waterloo highway project now has an official name, as the Four County Highway Coalition informally voted to accept State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo)'s suggestion of "Southwest Illinois Connector."

Schimpf, State Rep. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro), Jackson County Board Chairman John Rendleman, Monroe County Board Chairman Bob Elmore and Perry County Board Chairman Jim Epplin were among a crowd of about 35 people in attendance for Tuesday's meeting at the Perry County Government Building.

Joining the meeting by phone was U.S. Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL), while representatives from State Rep. Jerry Costello II's (D-Smithton) office, the Perry County Farm Bureau, E.T. Simonds Construction Company of Carbondale and several citizens also attended.

The focus of the meeting was updates from Schimpf and Bost on discussions they have had with the various state and federal transportation and infrastructure committees.

Bost said infrastructure is an issue that's been discussed in great detail among the leadership of the U.S. House and Senate, but finding new revenue streams to pay for large projects is a problem considering the gasoline tax is no longer enough.

"Everybody is more than willing to spend it, but the question is where the money will be generated to pay for it," Bost said. "The gas tax won't be enough revenue for this kind of project."

Bost floated the idea of a tax on batteries or tires being necessary to help fund projects on the national level.

"If the president does bring (infrastructure) up in his State of the Union address (on Jan. 30), and I hope he does, it will be a lever to push forward," he said.

Schimpf stated he has discussed the project with Rodger Heaton, Gov. Bruce Rauner's Chief of Staff, Illinois Department of Transportation Director Randall Blankenhorn and leadership of the state Senate Transportation Committee.

Schimpf said Heaton was "neutral" on the project, while the STC committee is in favor of it. In his conversations with Blankenhorn, Schimpf said the IDOT director suggested that it would be "tremendously helpful" if businesses were willing to move their operations to southwest Illinois.

Schimpf acknowledged how tall of a task that would be.

"You're asking people to make a commitment on a hypothetical, that's a tough thing to do," he said.

Schimpf noted the project has local mayor support and is concerned the region may "wither on the vine" if it doesn't have more economic activity.

He stated three reasons he feels the project needs to move forward for the economic well-being of the region: SIU-Carbondale's declining enrollment, the safety issues of Interstate 57 and the growth of the Kaskaskia Regional Port District in Randolph County.

"I remember John (Rendleman) came and talked to me right after I got elected and I had some initial reservations, but now as I've become more educated on the economic needs of our district here, I am fully behind this proposal," Schimpf said.

Schimpf said he would introduce legislation in the next two weeks to create a task force to further study the project and said 2019 could be a key year for a new capital construction bill at either the state or federal level. According to a handout distributed at the meeting, the Jackson County-to-St. Louis Metro East corridor has been previously studied in 1967, 1976, 1986, 1995 and 1996.

"This is the best way to get all the data on the table," Schimpf said. "To make the argument why this project is so vital to the southern Illinois economy."

During the 1990s, the project was named the Southwest Illinois Tollway. In 1996, IDOT determined that a 91-mile route from I-57 at Marion to Carbondale, to Murphysboro, passing north of Steeleville and Willisville, going south of Sparta, crossing the Kaskaskia River on State Route 13 and connecting with I-255 southwest of Belleville would cost an estimated $668 million to build.

The closest shovel-ready portion of the Southwest Illinois Connector is the 6.6 mile Murphysboro-to-Vergennes expansion, which is 70 percent complete in Phase II (contract plans and specifications). Carrie Nelsen, program development engineer for IDOT District 9 in Carbondale, reiterated during the meeting that IDOT has approval to pursue land acquisition, but currently lacks the funding to do so.

The cost of the 25.4 mile Murphysboro-to-Pinckneyville expansion, which includes bypasses around Vergennes and Pinckneyville, is estimated at $212 million. The FCHC is seeking funding for that section and an additional $21 million for engineering and environmental studies for the Waterloo to Red Bud and Red Bud to Pinckneyville sections.

And the proposed bypass around Pinckneyville's west side caused some pushback from Pinckneyville residents at the meeting, who voiced their concern that taking away the estimated 8,000 vehicles per day that traverse the Perry County Courthouse square could "kill" the town.

"If we don't do anything, we're going to lose population and not have economic growth," Schimpf said.

The next meeting of the FCHC is scheduled for 9 a.m. Feb. 27 at the Murphysboro City Council chambers. After the meeting, St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly, who is challenging Bost as a Democrat in Illinois' 12th Congressional District, called the Du Quoin Call to state his support for the project.

"This has to be a priority for both Republicans and Democrats at state, local and federal levels," he said.

 
 
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