By CARL GREEN
Edwardsville – A series of public hearings to discuss potential public works projects in southern Illinois are focusing on a plan to build a four-line highway between the Carbondale area and the Metro East.
Local officials told legislators that their top priorities for a public works bill would include the proposed Southwest Illinois Connector highway, plus university campus upgrades.
Recent meetings were held March 4 at SIU-Edwardsville and March 18 in Decatur.
State Senator Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) has been promoting the project and gave it its name at a meeting last year.
Schimpf says it is vital for the future of SIU-Carbondale, which has suffered major enrollment declines sometimes attributed to its far-southern location.
TWO LANES TO FOUR
As now envisioned, the long-studied Connector would run through Jackson, Perry, Monroe and Randolph counties, using improvements turning existing two-lane roads into four-lane. That could involve parts of Illinois routes 3, 4, 13, 127 and 154, among others.
Randolph County Commissioner Marc Kiehna said the project, currently estimated at $400 million, is essentially to rebuilding SIU-Carbondale as a viable regional university.
“I don’t think you can separate roads from an institution like Carbondale,” he said.
SIU officials presented potential projects including $83 million to refurbish the mass communications-media building and $98 million for the science building plus an estimated $700 million worth of campus repairs called “deferred maintenance.”
“Visually, we need cranes on our campus,” said Interim Chancellor John Dunn. “Cranes on the campus send a powerful message to the public at large that we’re alive and well, we’re working forward and we’re creating jobs.”
Schimpf last year won approval for a Southwest Illinois Task Force to study and promote the project, authorized through December, when it is to submit a report to the Legislature.
“This road could be an important tool for economic development in our region, but first we have to find if the idea is truly feasible,” Schimpf said. “The task force will help us to answer that question, by determining the cost, the impact, and what route it would take.”
He says the project would help SIU Carbondale, ease safety concerns on Interstate 57 and support growth of the Kaskaskia Regional Port District in Randolph County.
BAILEY: RAUNER WAS NO HELP
Totsie Bailey, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, noted that former Gov. Bruce Rauner and his administration did nothing to advance the project in the past four years.
“We had a governor that wasn’t helpful to Illinois, did not want to invest in our state and was willing to let our universities, roads and bridges crumble to achieve his political goal,” Bailey said.
Lawmakers at the meeting agreed that funding is the problem in developing a capital bill, possibly requiring an increase in already-high motor fuel taxes.
Past studies have suggested some route possibilities including:
• Crossing the Kaskaskia River using Illinois 13.
• Connecting to Interstate 255 near Columbia.
• Bypasses around Pinckneyville and Vergennes, both on Routes 13 and 127.
• The four-lane section of Route 13 connecting Marion to Carbondale and Murphysboro would be included.
(Information from Carbondale Times, Capitol News Illinois and KFVS Channel 12.)