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Illinois Department of Transportation officials had scheduled a meeting last Wednesday in Vandalia to explain to northside neighborhood residents why the two Ill. Route 51 bypass routes IDOT selected are the best alternatives for the city.
But opposition among local citizens and in the local media led them to rethink that plan before the meeting got under way.
“We decided it is in the best interest of the community to take a couple steps back,” Matt Hirtzel, an IDOT engineer, told the crowd of about 100 attending Wednesday’s meeting at the Kaskaskia College Vandalia campus.
“We’re looking at reorganizing the community advisory group.”
That group – one of five in the 65-mile stretch of Ill. Route 51 remaining to be upgraded to four lanes – consists of about 25 people.
But the scope and tone of the opposition to the two bypass routes took IDOT by surprise.
“Last week I noticed in The Leader-Union that the city and county had signed petitions against the two routes,” Hirtzel said. “We don’t like to see that. If people don’t understand, then we messed up and didn’t explain things very well.”
Jerry Payonk, a representative of Clark-Dietz Engineering of Champaign, a firm that works with IDOT on the project, said that the decision was made to go back several steps in the process.
“We’re not trashing what we’ve done; but we’re going to develop some new information,” Payonk said. “The Community Advisory Group is being reorganized. We’re anticipating that the CAG will be meeting every other week for the next several months. That’s quite a commitment.”
The officials then told the crowd that they needed to choose three representatives to serve as new members on the CAG. To ensure that the local group – not IDOT – made those selections, the representatives of IDOT and Clark-Dietz left the room for about 20 minutes until the selections were made.
That meeting was moderated by Vandalia Mayor Rick Gottman and Fayette County Board Chairman Steve Knebel, both members of the CAG.
“Bringing people on from your area will be very important to the CAG,” Gottman said. “This process will be rapid; the group will be meeting every two weeks. The people chosen must have a commitment to be at every meeting.”
Knebel added: “This is an opportunity for the northside neighborhoods to get some representation on the CAG. But these members can’t be personal; it’s not just to keep the road from coming through their property. It’s to decide what’s best for the whole community.”
Picked by the citizens to represent the interests of the northside neighborhoods on the CAG were: Don Dolly (Deerwood Estates and Zent Drive), Kathy Trexler (Forest Hills and Ill. Route 185) and Janet Bright (Airport Road).
“What we have done here tonight is new territory for us,” Payonk said. “We’ll now meet with the re-formed CAG and determine which areas are not represented. This process is all part of getting everyone involved.”
After the meeting, Roger Driskell, regional engineer from the Effingham IDOT office, said that he “wanted it to be a transparent process – that nobody was ignored and it was fair.”
He also noted that when the new CAG first meets, the membership of that group will be reviewed to make sure all aspects of the city are represented – downtown, northside neighborhoods, farmers, historic groups, etc.
The challenge in Vandalia, he said, is that it’s a larger community than many along the route, and it has several unique aspects that must be considered. It has I-70 on the north, the Kaskaskia River on the east and south, farmland on the west and a historic area downtown.
“We’ll start where we were six months or a year ago,” Driskell said. “We’ll draw lines on a map and see which routes emerge. It’s a balancing act; you have to look at all the impacts.”
The northside neighborhood group has scheduled a meeting this Thursday at Vandalia City Hall.
That 6 p.m. meeting, to which state and national representatives have been invited, will be an opportunity for residents of those neighborhoods to register their concerns and solicit help from their political representatives.
Among those who have been invited are: U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill., 19th District), State Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) and State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Greenville).
Gottman said at Monday night’s city council meeting that McCarter and Stephens plan to attend Thursday’s meeting, and that Shimkus plans to send a representative. Durbin will not have a representative present, Gottman said.