North side residents air concerns on Route 51 corridors

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By Dave Bell

Because of the number of letters they received after last month’s unveiling of proposed U.S. Route 51 bypass routes around Vandalia, officials from the Illinois Department of Transportation decided to hold a meeting to hear from homeowners potentially affected by those routes.


They got an earful.


More than 100 residents showed up at last Thursday’s informational meeting, and many were upset that the two remaining IDOT routes significantly impacted residential areas in the Thrill Hill, Zent Drive and Airport Road areas.


Those routes – as currently drawn – would swing west of the Vandalia Correctional Center at Vera Road, parallel the current Route 51 until they cross Thrill Hill Road and then start a gradual curve to the west – crossing Zent Drive just south of Deerwood Estates and continuing west along Airport Road.


All that way, the roadway itself would take a swath at least 200 feet wide. The entire corridor, IDOT officials said, would be about 500 feet wide.


“This is the first time we’ve met with a specific neighborhood,” said Jerry Payonk, a representative of Clark-Dietz Inc., a Champaign engineering firm that is working with IDOT on the expansion of Route 51 to four lanes from Decatur to Centralia. “But this is the most difficult area in the whole 65-mile stretch of the highway. We’ve known from day one that this was going to be a problem area.”


He said that more than 220 notices of Thursday’s meeting were hung on doorknobs in the affected neighborhoods.


“We felt obliged to come and meet with these people,” he said after Thursday’s meeting, “because we were getting so many comments. We thought that now is the time to meet with them.”


Several citizens questioned both the process that was used to make the selection of the routes and the wisdom of the routes themselves.


“What we’re concerned about is trying to keep down the impact on residential areas,” said Troy Payne.


Others asked why all the routes seemed to favor the western side of town, when an eastern bypass would be shorter and more direct.


“Going east was a line that was never drawn by the community advisory committee,” Payonk said, referring to a group of community residents that has been meeting with IDOT personnel to provide local input on the project.


“We’re not allowed to go through a floodplain if there is a reasonable alternative,” said Matt Hirtzel, one of about a half-dozen IDOT employees attending the meeting. “We have to look at the alternatives.”


That position was countered by Chuck Forbes: “So what I’m hearing it that frogs in the floodplain are more important than people.”


One person questioned the project’s impact on area wells. Another asked if IDOT was aware of a Marathon pipeline in the area that’s been proposed for the bypass route near Zent Drive and Ill. Route 185.


One route alternative that several people seemed to support would connect Route 51 with I-70 at its current intersection and use the interstate lanes (or additional lanes on the outside of the current lanes) to transport traffic to a western bypass around the city.


Payonk warned that the “free flow ramps would create a monstrous intersection.” Those types of ramps would have to allow traffic to flow at highway speed, and would require much more space for ramps and curves.


When asked when this part of the project is likely to be built, Payonk said: “A long time from now.” He noted that a draft environmental impact statement will be written by the second quarter of 2011. The final route alternative will be determined by the summer of 2012 and the final approval of the plan will be granted in early 2013.


Then land acquisition will begin – “and that can take years,” he said. “We’re talking eight to 10 years before we’d ever turn a shovel here. And if they continue moving south from Pana like they’re doing now, it will be a lot longer than that.


“This is a tough community (for building a bypass),” Payonk said. “There are a lot of things that make it unique. For one, it’s the only community in the 65 miles that has an interstate.


“We’re looking for comments to see if they add alternate considerations.”


The comment line telephone number is 217-373-8951. The IDOT website for the Route 51 project is: www.us51eis-idot.com.


He said another community meeting will be held in the first or second quarter of 2011.