Prairie Parkway funding pulled

Money diverted to widen Route 47
by Susan O’Neill
ILLINOIS—Citizens Against the Sprawlway members recently gathered at their 11th annual picnic and rally, this time to celebrate the demise of the Prairie Parkway.

For the past 10 years, the group opposing the proposed Prairie Parkway has held the event on the last Sunday in August at Big Rock resident Marvel Davis’ farm. This year, after 11 years of waging their fight against the proposed highway, the grassroots organization said they were finally able to declare victory.

The Federal Highway Administration on Aug. 22 rescinded its 2008 decision to approve and fund the Prairie Parkway, a proposed 37-mile expressway that was to connect Interstate 80 with Interstate 88. Funding earmarked for the highway has been diverted to pay for widening and other improvements to Illinois Route 47, Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) spokesperson Josh Kauffman said.

According to IDOT District III engineer Dave Brobiak, the stretch of Route 47 beginning .6 miles north of I-80 in Morris and ending at Cross Street in Sugar Grove is in some stage of construction or study to widen and improve it.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Jan Strasma, Chairman of Citizens Against the Sprawlway. Strasma and his group, in conjunction with a number of other organizations, had continued to voice their opposition to the highway. They told IDOT that, rather than build a new road, the money should instead be spent on improving the current roads, especially Route 47. Then-U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert in 2001 had reintroduced the idea of the north-south highway between I-80 and I-88. He said that the highway would relieve congestion on local and state roads, as well as absorb the additional future traffic he said was inevitable due to an anticipated increase in growth in western Kane County, as well as Kendall and Grundy counties.

But Strasma and other opponents said that the outer belt expressway would act as a stimulant for rapid growth, eating up acres of precious farmland in the process.

IDOT in 2002 moved forward with plans for the highway, and identified a corridor through which it could be built. IDOT marked the deeds of landowners along the corridor, which meant that if owners wished to make an improvement to their property, they had to notify the state first. The state would then have the option to purchase the property.

Opposition to the parkway became more widespread as farmers and other landowners realized the impact the road would have on their property. Davis, whose farm helped people visualize what would be lost in building the highway, said her property would be divided in two by the proposed road.

Big Rock and Kaneville residents voted overwhelmingly against the parkway in non-binding referendums.

Not everyone was opposed to the highway, however. Village officials interested in growth, such as Sugar Grove Village President Sean Michels, said they saw the highway as a stimulus for commercial and other development in their towns and beyond. Michels did not see the choice as either the parkway or the improvements to local roads. Sugar Grove officials supported both the highway and the widening of Route 47.

Meanwhile, Hastert hastened progress on the Parkway when he obtained a $207 million earmark for the highway in the federal government’s 2005 transportation bill.

The Federal Highway Administration issued its record of decision approving the Prairie Parkway project and the final environmental impact statement in 2008, making the project eligible for federal funding. Hastert resigned from Congress later that year.

Citizens Against the Sprawlway, in conjunction with Friends of the Fox River, filed a lawsuit in 2009 against the FHWA, stating that IDOT had preselected the route prior to conducting the environmental study of its impacts. Attorneys from the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), a Chicago public interest group, represented the group.

With the flagging economy and a slowdown of development, as well as the state of Illinois’ financial woes, funding for the highway stalled. Beginning in 2010, IDOT cut the Prairie Parkway from its six-year Highway Improvement Program and continued to omit it from subsequent annual updates.

In addition, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning did not give the Parkway a high funding priority in its “Go to 2040” land use and transportation plan for the seven-county area.

This paved the way for the FHWA’s action to rescind its record of decision for the highway. Staff attorney Andrew Armstrong said that, when the state rescinded its record of decision, his organization filed to dismiss the lawsuit.

According to the Citizens Against the Sprawlway website, about $70 million in federal and state funds has been spent so far on the Prairie Parkway on studies of the need for the highway, environment and engineering, including $21.5 million for the acquisition of about 300 acres of land along the corridor. No actual construction has taken place.

Although the federal action effectively cancels plans for the Prairie Parkway, Kaneville Planning Commission Chair and IDOT Prairie Parkway Citizens Advisory Committee member Joe White emphasized that it doesn’t really change anything unless the state decides to lift the marks off of people’s deeds.

IDOT continues to protect the 400-foot-wide corridor between the two interstates. The corridor protection, filed in 2007, restricts affected property owners from making improvements to their property without state review and approval.
White said he doesn’t believe it was public opinion that put the brakes on the parkway. He believes that if IDOT had an open checkbook, the parkway would still be on the table.

Elburn Village President Dave Anderson would agree with that. He said that with the center line already designated, he believes that plans for the highway will resume if funding comes back. He supports the highway and said it is important in alleviating traffic on Route 47 and diverting north-bound truck traffic. He thinks it should be built, not just from I-80 to I-88, but all the way to I-90.

In the meantime, he said he supports keeping the funding local, and that Route 47 can use the improvements. He said he also supports a full interchange at Route 47 and I-88, something that Sugar Grove officials have been pushing for some time.

Michels said that he has already been in touch with Rep. Randy Hultgren to ensure that the funding stays local and remains focused on Route 47.

“We need to move fast and we need to be vocal,” Michels said. “I’m afraid things could be re-allocated.”