Metro-East News

This proposed road would speed up the trip to Carbondale. But at what cost?

Southwest Illinois Connector

The Southwest Illinois Connector would go from the St. Louis metro area to near Carbondale, IL by SUIC. It may expand two-lane roads into four-lane, divided highways. Bypasses may be built around towns.
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The Southwest Illinois Connector would go from the St. Louis metro area to near Carbondale, IL by SUIC. It may expand two-lane roads into four-lane, divided highways. Bypasses may be built around towns.

Southern Illinois leaders for decades have talked about the need for a faster way to get travelers from the metro-east to Carbondale to promote economic development in the region.

And now there is a revived movement to build a four-lane, divided highway from Waterloo to Murphysboro near Carbondale. The project may expand existing two-lane roads such as Illinois routes 3, 154 and 127 and build bypasses around towns such as Pinkneyville and Sparta. However, the exact path has not yet been decided.

A newly formed task force has been assigned by state lawmakers to investigate the cost, feasibility and environmental impact of building the proposed roadway called the Southwest Illinois Connector.

The preliminary cost estimate is $409 million, according the task force’s chairman, Marc Kiehna, a Randolph County commissioner who has been a leading proponent of the connector.

Funding for the project has not been obtained, and supporters of the plan say they are open to the idea of building the highway in phases if they can’t immediately get money for the entire project.

“It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. … I may be long gone by the time this thing is all completed,” Kiehna said. “I feel like it’s important. I feel it’s important for my grandchildren and the children of the people who live where I’m at right now.”

Driving the economy

When manufacturers have considered locating in places such as Sparta, they inquire whether the location is near a four-lane highway, Kiehna said.

But when they are told the site doesn’t have access to a four-lane highway, “that just shuts down the conversation,” he said.

State Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, supports the highway proposal and sponsored the Senate joint resolution that paved the way for the 15-member Southwest Illinois Connector Task Force.

“I think that this highway is necessary for Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, the Kaskaskia Regional Port District and the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in Sparta to maximize their potential,” Schimpf said.

The connector could make it easier for motorists to visit places such as SIUC, the state-owned shooting complex and the 19,701-acre Pyramid State Recreation Area near Pinckneyville, Kiehna said.

Concerns have been raised about towns where a bypass may be built, but Kiehna believes the town’s economy would be pumped up because a wider highway would attract more visitors to an area.

“Expanding Illinois routes 3, 154 and 127 to four lanes is essential for the expansion of commerce in Southern Illinois and future growth and job opportunities,” Kiehna told members of a state Senate Subcommittee on Capital during a hearing about capital improvement projects needed in Illinois. The hearing was held Monday at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

The connector was one of the ideas proposed for a state capital bill — the first in nearly a decade — that Gov. J.B. Pritzker has identified as one of his priorities.

Highway funding

State lawmakers have not decided how they would pay for the proposed capital improvement plans across the state, including the Southwest Illinois Connector.

“That’s the big question … ‘How is the state of Illinois going to pay for its capital bill?’” Schimpf said. “I would like to see the state cut some spending.

“I thought we could have kept spending down in the last budget and really if we had done that, we would have been a long way toward being able to fund this capital project.”

Schimpf said he voted for the current state budget because he felt the state needed to have a budget, but he said it should not have included $500 million for the Discovery Partners Institute, a Chicago-based research institute affiliated with the University of Illinois.

“I’m a believer in higher education but at the same time the U of I system has a lot of donors and alumni with deep pockets, and in a period of extreme fiscal challenges for our state, I would have rather spent that money on infrastructure,” he said.

He also opposed the use of state money for the President Barack Obama presidential library in Chicago. The state will spend $199 million for road and transportation projects around the site of the $500 million library, which will be built with private money, according to media reports.

Kiehna said he has pitched the Southwest Illinois Connector proposal to U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, about finding federal dollars to help with the project in his congressional district.

Bost is “very supportive of the concept” but noted there are “many details still to be worked out,” according to his spokesman, George O’Connor.

“At this point in the process, it’s a little early to identify specific federal funding streams for the project,” O’Connor said.

Kiehna does not believe that funding for the project would be via tolls collected from drivers. However, this idea was considered in the mid-1990s.

The Illinois Department of Transportation and a consulting firm were part of group known as the Southwestern Illinois Freeway Team, or SWIFT, that studied the possibility of building a tollway between Interstate 64 in the metro-east and Carbondale. The group conducted open houses in Sparta and Carbondale in 1995 to discuss the proposal but the road was never built.

If Interstate 24 had been continued on from Interstate 57, there would not be a need the Southwest Illinois Connector, Kiehna said.

“I wish back when Interstate 24 was stopped down in the southern part of Illinois that it had continued because … if you follow Interstate 24 and you look where it stopped, it stopped facing St. Louis,” Kiehna said. “That’s where it was to go and the route we’re talking about is what could have happened if interstate 24 had continued onto to St. Louis but it did not.”

Another area highway project that did not get funded was called the Gateway Connector, which was not related to the Southwest Illinois Connector. In 2017, the Illinois Department of Transportation abolished the Gateway Connector from its long-range plan to extend Illinois 158 from Columbia to Troy after residents raised complaints about the proposed road for years.

Instead of widening existing roadways, the Gateway Connector would have used undeveloped farmland and eminent domain to obtain the land from private owners.

Task force report

The Southwest Illinois Connector Task Force first met on March 1, when Schimpf nominated Kiehna to be the chairman the group.

The task force has been asked to submit its report by December and its next meeting will be at 10 a.m. April 12 at the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in Sparta.

Kiehna said the group’s meetings will be open to the public.

“I don’t think that we have figured out a final route yet,” Schimpf said. “I don’t think we have a cost yet.

“That’s what I’m looking to get out of this task force. Come up with a proposal that we can make the ask for.”

Schimpf said Kiehna did “phenomenal work” as chairman of the grassroots group that has reached out to residents in Jackson, Monroe, Perry and Randolph counties to raise awareness of the proposed highway.

“I feel like for a project like this that requires consensus, that it can’t become political where people are thinking it’s either the Republican highway proposal or the Democratic highway proposal,” Schimpf said.

Mike Koziatek joined the Belleville News-Democrat in 1998 as an assistant editor and is now a reporter covering the Belleville area. He graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee and grew up in St. Louis.