Highway expansion options a source of debate

By Gus Bode

Different options favored by many residents and business owners

The highway between Murphysboro and Pinckneyville is going to expand to four lanes, but where the road should go remains a source of debate.

Many residents will lose their homes if the highway cuts through on the existing route, but many businesses may not be able to survive if traffic is rerouted.

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The Illinois Department of Transportation has not yet decided what method to use to expand a 22-mile stretch of Highway 127 between Murphysboro and Pinckneyville to four lanes.

Public meetings took place last week to exhibit the opinions of those affected by the change and to show residents possible alternates for the construction.

The final route has not been decided, but Beth Ponce, program development engineer for IDOT, said comments from the meeting were “overwhelmingly in favor of a build.”

The idea of expanding routes between the Carbondale area and St. Louis is nothing new. Ponce said there have been several studies about the possibility of a faster route between the cities, but IDOT lacked the necessary funding. She said the last proposal was for a diagonal tollway between Carbondale and St. Louis that would have cost $1.75 billion.

The most recent study of the expansion was federally mandated by the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century.

Carrie Nelsen, project engineer for IDOT, said there are going to be difficulties concerning where the highway meets Pinckneyville. There are two options that would run directly through the town and three options that would bypass it.

“There’s not an obvious answer to going through or getting around this town,” Nelsen said. “We have as many opinions as alternatives.”

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Nelsen said the project is a unique engineering problem because people wanted a quicker and safer route to the Metro East area.

Vergennes, a town between Murphysboro and Pinckneyville, is faced with the option of a bypass.

The speed of the highway will be reduced if it goes through town, but there are concerns that a bypass could kill the town.

Jesse Phillips, owner of an antique shop on 127 in Vergennes for the past 29 years, is not in favor of the project coming through Vergennes. Phillips will be forced to sell his business if the highway in front of his store is expanded. He said the option to go around is worse.

“If they go around the town, it will kill it,” Phillips said.

Philips wants the road to stay two lanes in the town so that the town wouldn’t be hurt but would still get the traffic.

Not everyone in the town is in agreement.

Lynn Naumann, who also lives along the highway in Vergennes, is in favor of the route going outside the town because the in-town alternative will take her and her neighbors’ yards and raise the speed in her neighborhood. She would also be inconvenienced by needing to take a frontage road to her home.

Ponce said access to the highway is another problem with the project. The highway will be faster in design and will have more limited access. There will no longer be direct commercial access, and residents may have to take frontage roads to get to homes. Ponce said efforts are taken to reduce the problem, but “there’s some situations we can’t remedy.”

Naumann said a bypass would still have some drawbacks as it may cut down on some farmland and the town would likely lose the gas station, which is presently the only convenient one.

Because there are a lot of older residents in Vergennes, it will be traumatic to make them move if the highway expands through town, Naumann said.

“These are permanent residences that have been here 40, 50 years,” Naumann said.

She may have difficulties moving because her husband is hooked up to a lifeline, and she may not be able to move back into the country.

“I might have to move into an entirely new town,” Naumann said. “They ought to consider the human beings more than acreage.”

Naumann said she realizes the acreage that would be taken by a bypass is some people’s lifeblood, but she feels the impact is less than taking people’s homes.

Harlen Doerr, owner of an Angus cattle farm one block outside Vergennes, said he does not think the bypass is a good idea. Doerr said he does not feel the money needs to be spent and it is going to tear up farmlands.

Sabrina Alstat, who owns The Country Store in Vergennes with her husband, Allen, said the two are “very strongly opposed to it going around town.”

The Country Store is the gas station and convenience store in Vergennes along the highway.

“If it goes out of town it will greatly reduce our business and probably put us under,” Alstat said.

Alstat said the loss of the store would hurt the town because there’s a lot of people who come in and get things instead of driving to Du Quoin or Murphysboro. Alstat said they would not be able to sell the store without a highway.

“You wouldn’t build a train depot where there wasn’t a railroad,” Alstat said.

Alstat said that if the highway goes through the town, it will “help our business and help our town grow.”

The majority of the rural sections of the project will use the existing two lanes and build two more lanes. There will be some relocations of existing curves.

The expansion is a long-term project, but Ponce said IDOT has made an incredible amount of progress and a decision about the route is expected later this fall. The preferred route will then be studied in more detail and another public meeting will be held about one year from now.

Funding is still one of the major issues IDOT has to contend with. Nelsen said IDOT has no funding beyond the study. State and federal transportation funds will be needed for purchasing land and construction. The project could cost between $52 million and $113 million, the more expensive alternatives being bypasses.

Although steps have been taken to involve the community, there is always some resentment. IDOT is taking steps to help those affected make a difference in the decision making process.

Although Ponce said that people feel it doesn’t matter what they think, “it is a component of the decision making process that we take seriously.”

Even so, Phillips said his word does not make a difference in the final decision.

“I’ve learned one thing,” Phillips said. “They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.”

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