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Progress on U.S. Route 51 expansion plans explained

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

It will still be some time before Fayette County residents will see U.S. Route 51 being expanded to four lanes, but they do now have a better idea of where the four lanes will run.

At public meetings last week, Illinois Department of Transportation officials and representatives of Clark Dietz Inc., a Champaign engineering firm partnering with IDOT on the Route 51 expansion, presented preliminary alignments showing the likely paths of the four-lane roadway.

Jerry Payonk of Clark Dietz said the Route 51 partners are halfway through the process of gaining federal approval for the completion of the Route 51 project.

Studies on the expansion of the highway began in 1970, Payonk said, with the first section of four-lane roadway built from Forsyth to Bloomington.

Another study on the expansion was undertaken in 1987, and an environmental study for expansion from Decatur to Pana was completed in 1987, he said.

Construction on the four lanes has progressed from Decatur to a point north of Assumption, and Payonk said there’s money in the state’s current capital bill for construction of two more sections – a bypass around Assumption and a section south of Assumption.

Next on the schedule, once more funds are approved, are the construction of two sections around Pana.

Presented at last week’s meetings in Vandalia and Ramsey were Route 51 expansion maps for the current study area, from Christian County to north of Irvington.

Those maps show the proposed path of Route 51 in the communities of Ramsey, Vandalia, Vernon, Patoka, Sandoval and Centralia, as well as in the areas between those communities.

The proposed corridors have been put together after a number of meetings involving community and regional advisory groups, Payonk said.

“Approximately 90 percent of the exhibits (maps) have been developed by representatives of your community,” he said.

Factors that have been considered in developing those corridors, he said, include traffic safety, economic development, community issues and “what’s important to you.”

“We have been defining and analyzing alternatives,” Payonk said.

In the macro analysis phase of the study, he said, those who have been involved have looked at such factors as impact on wetlands, and business and residential displacement.

“We’d like to do this without any displacement of businesses and residences, but that’s physically impossible,” Payonk said.

In the Vandalia area, he said, “Interstate 70 created a challenge that none of the other communities had – connecting (Route 51) to Interstate 70.”

The advisory committee came up with two corridors, both of which have Route 51 running around Vandalia to the west, a short distance west of the city’s western I-70 interchange. (See map on page 1.)

One of the corridors has Route 51 running in its current path next to Vandalia Correctional Center, and the other has the roadway heading out to the west near the Vera Road.

The next step is to wind up the public input process. Clark Dietz will be accepting public comments through Dec. 4. A public comment form is available at the Route 51 Web site, www.us51eis-dot.com.

“After receiving your input, we will be presenting this to the Federal Highway Administration in February,” Payonk said.

Final alternative corridors will be developed by next summer, with federal approval of the corridors expected by 2012. While that information is in the hands of the Federal Highway Administration, he said, an environmental impact study will be conducted.