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State gives update on U.S. Route 51 expansion project

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

The Illinois Department of Transportation may not be ready to bid out the four-lane expansion of U.S. Route 51 in Fayette County, but that doesn’t mean the state agency is waiting to get comments from residents of local communities.

The agency and its Route 51 consultants are holding regular meetings with both community and regional advisory committees, and soliciting comments from the general public as it reaches “milestones” in the initial phase of highway improvements in this area, according to a representative of one of the consulting firms.

Jerry Payonk, vice president of Clark Dietz Inc., made himself available for comments from Ramsey residents on Tuesday, and he was among those planning to be in Vandalia on Wednesday.

The purpose of those visits was to get public reaction from what Payonk terms the first “milestone” of Phase I for the four-lane expansion from south of Pana and Centralia – the Environmental Impact Statement Purpose and Need Document.

That document covers the status of the 100-mile expansion between Decatur and Centralia, cites the need for expansion to improve traffic safety and the transportation of goods, and includes current traffic volume, as well as the projected volume in 2030.

“This document is the foundation on which the project is built,” Payonk said.

The community advisory groups, Payonk said, have met four times since last fall, with input from the members including alternatives paths for the highway in or around each community.

“What we are looking at, are there any stellar ideas out there?,” Payonk said.

“At the last meetings (of the community groups), we put down maps and brainstormed on where we want this (highway) to go,” he said.

Between February and late summer of next year, “We want to try to narrow it down to a couple of feasible corridors,” he said.

Phase I of the expansion, Payonk said, “is visionary – at the end of this phase, we will have an alignment (for U.S. Route 51 for the entire stretch).”

IDOT and its consultants have until 2012 to finish Phase I, and Payonk believes it will take all of the allotted time to complete that work.

Phase II, which will include engineering work and land purchase, will take up to six years to complete.

“Even if the money (for construction) were available now, it will eight to 10 years to get us to the point where we will be ready to bid it out,” Payonk said.

The four-lane expansion is currently continuing south from Decatur. The latest phase of construction, a four-mile stretch south of Moweaqua, was opened in the fall of 2007.

The next stretch to be constructed is a four-mile-long bypass around Assumption.

Another four-mile stretch south of Assumption and a bypass extending seven miles around Pana are currently being designed, and construction will begin when funding becomes available.

Payonk said on Tuesday that there is hope for funding to IDOT being provided in the next federal Transportation Bill.