A long-planned federal highway across southern Illinois connecting Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Paducah, Kentucky is no more – at least for now.
Federal transportation officials quietly pulled the plug on the 66 Corridor project this past summer after Kentucky withdrew its support for what was once envisioned as a coast-to-coast interstate that would invoke the iconic cross-country Route 66.
The Illinois Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration instead unveiled a proposed Shawnee Parkway in late November that would skirt portions of the national forest with the same name. The shorter segment would stretch from Illinois Route 3 along the Mississippi River to Interstate 57 through Alexander, Pulaski and Union counties.
Local and regional boosters in southeast Missouri and southern Illinois cite safety needs and the project’s economic development potential. So does the state of Illinois.
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“Without an adequate east-west roadway, there is limited opportunity for economic development and access to jobs, adequate healthcare and educational opportunities in this area,” an online project summary states.
A $1.5 million combined federal and state grant that was intended for the broader highway project has been set aside for initial engineering and environmental studies that will put forward several alternatives, including a no-build option.
That’s the preferred choice of project opponents such as Tabitha Tripp, a member of the grassroots group Citizens for Southernmost Illinois. Tripp called the Shawnee Parkway effort a waste of money with potentially dire environmental consequences.
“It’s wasteful spending,” she said, citing the state’s shaky financial footing as Illinois begins its seventh month without a state budget. “To move forward with this project is fiscally irresponsible of the state when we’re in such dire straits in Illinois. What were they thinking?”
Illinois DOT spokeswoman Gianna Urgo said that the federal government is covering 80 percent of the grant’s cost, with Illinois responsible for just $300,000. She emphasized that no money has been set aside for road design or construction.
Efforts to build a cross-country highway through the heartland date back at least two decades. A 1994 Transamerica Transportation Corridor study envisioned an I-66 that stretched from Washington to Los Angeles.
The ambitious project has since received varying degrees of support among state officials, with Kentucky’s transportation department among the most vocal advocates. Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman Keith Todd said the state is focusing its highway construction efforts on its segments of Interstate 69, a north-south route also envisioned as spanning the nation.
John Mehner, president and chief executive officer of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce, remains convinced of the need for a highway across southern Illinois, even if the scaled-back project doesn’t quite reach southeast Missouri.
“It would provide a huge potential upgrade,” he said. “Any kind of economic development is a shot in the arm.”
Project supporters and opponents, as well as transportation planners, seem to agree on at least one point: Should the Shawnee Parkway eventually get built, a new highway linking Illinois to Missouri and Kentucky – if not the two coasts –– will be that much easier.
“This is an Illinois project,” said Carrie Nelsen, an Illinois DOT program development engineer. “That doesn’t mean some other entity couldn’t pick it up at some other time.”