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Groups Push Parkway Alternative

With the state’s announcement this month that a route for the Prairie Parkway has been chosen, the planning phase for the proposed highway may be drawing to a close. But opponents hope the legislature will allocate design and construction funds to an alternative transportation plan instead.

A coalition of ten local and regional environmental and civic groups opposes the parkway, arguing that the costs to natural habitats and to agricultural areas would be too high and that investing in existing local roads to build a comprehensive grid would better serve residents.

Local groups in the coalition include Citizens Against the Sprawlway, Friends of Fox River, and Kendall Citizens for Farmland Protection, along with several Chicago-based environmental and public interest groups.

On June 1, after six years of study, the Illinois Department of Transportation announced a route for the “parkway”: a 37-mile four-lane freeway running south from I-88 near Kaneville, jogging east near Yorkville and connecting to I-80 near Minooka. Earlier this year IDOT included a five-mile section of the project, with an interchange near Yorkville, in its eight-year highway plan.

The project, estimated to cost $1 billion in total, has been spurred by a $207 million earmark inserted in the 2005 federal transportation bill by then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, including $50 million for an interchange near Hastert’s hometown of Yorkville.

But the earmark requires a 20 percent state match, and the project can’t move forward until the state ponies up its share of funds. Opponents say they are asking legislators to watch for a line item for the Prairie Parkway in upcoming state budgets (including a long-awaited capital budget) – and when it appears, to reallocate the funds to improve existing roads.

The federal earmark, which specified providing a north-south corridor linking the two interstates, could go to widening IL-47, they say.

They fear the billion-dollar throughway would divert funds from existing roads that badly need immediate repair and improvement, in an area where two-lane country roads are increasingly clogged with commuters. Mayors in the area have also called on Metra to extend its Chicago-Aurora line into Kendall County.

Access to jobs in DuPage and Will Counties to the east is a growing need in the area, but the proposed parkway would cut and close thirteen east-west roads. IDOT is holding public hearings on proposed road closings, among other issues, in Yorkville on July 11 and 12.

“Prairie Parkway is not going to fix our traffic problems,” said Tim Gerk, a Plano science teacher who is active in Kendall Citizens for Farmland Protection. “For people living in these towns, we’ll have to double back just to get around the highway.”

“You want traffic flowing east-west in addition to north-south, otherwise you get a bottleneck where the east-west roads are cut,” said Stacy Meyers-Glen of Openlands.

“The local alternative would do more for the people who live and work in these communities than a freeway connecting one interstate to another,” said Jan Strasma of Citizens Against the Sprawlway.

The coalition came together early this year and submitted comments to IDOT’s draft environmental impact statement, which they said used flawed and inaccurate data to downplay harm to local waterways and endangered and threatened species. IDOT is due to submit a final EIS late this year.

Meyers-Glen is concerned that the agency chose a route before it addressed serious discrepancies – such as using old data instead of newer and more accurate measurements – pointed out by critics. “If they haven’t done a valid cost-benefit analysis, how do they know they’re choosing the best alternative?”

The highway will take away over 2500 acres of agricultural land, running through 189 farms, and will attract development in an area already losing thousands of acres of farmland to sprawl every year. Gerk says IDOT’s estimate that the parkway will attract development taking 5,000 additional acres of farmland over the next 20 years is “way too small.”

“It’s prime farmland – some of the finest soil in the world,” said Meyers-Glen. “And once you pave it, you can never bring it back again.” It’s also an area “where people are trying to preserve agriculture, where families have been farming the same land for generations,” she adds. “They’re going to lose their livelihoods, their way of life, their heritage – and they don’t have any choice, it’s being imposed on them.”

Kendall Citizens for Farmland Protection has been promoting the county’s agricultural conservation easements program, Gerk says, but the highway has made people hesitant to sign up. “They say the parkway will take it anyway,” he said. “They see the parkway as inescapable.”

Nine local governments in the three relevant counties have endorsed the parkway, but in April two small, rural communities voted against it in advisory referenda. Kaneville residents voted by 81 percent against the highway, and residents of Big Rock Township opposed it by 88 percent. The road would cut through the middle of each town.

The 435 members of the Kendall County Farm Bureau are also on record as opposed. In a 2000 survey by University of Illinois Extension Office in Yorkville, 87 percent of residents said the county should “aggressively protect its agricultural lands from development.”

“There’s one view in the area that favors preserving our hometown ambience and agricultural communities, that sees all this as a rich tradition,” Gerk said. “Others say we want to be a suburb just like everybody else.”

[In 2004, Newstips reported that after IDOT failed to compile public comments on the Prairie Parkway proposal, the Center for Neighborhood Technology did so — and found that nearby residents were overwhelmingly in opposition; the strongest supporters were business interests from McHenry County.]

Meyers-Glen said that while “IDOT has created a sense of inevitability” to the project, a number of local legislators are supportive of the local alternative. “We need to let people know there’s still time to fix this plan.”

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