U.S. 34's four-lane future up in the air.

Hawk Eye, The (Burlington, IA), 2014-08-10

Aug. 10 -- BIGGSVILLE, Ill. -- Travel between Monmouth, Ill. , and Burlington is a difficult task. Drivers must travel 24.7 miles of U.S. 34 , a curvy and hilly two-lane road.

It's a road that, until recently, seemed forgotten by the state as traffic numbers continued to climb.

"It's got windy sections and sharp turns. There's never a 'No, I'm not going to deal with a semi truck' on U.S. 34 between those two towns," said Paul Schuytema , director of community development in Monmouth .

On Wednesday, a semi found itself in a ditch close to Biggsville on U.S. 34 , backing up traffic.

With U.S. 34 being difficult to navigate, accident numbers are high. In a 10-year span, 775 accidents occurred on the Henderson County stretch of U.S. 34 , resulting in 353 injuries and 12 fatalities.

The groups Highway 34 Coalition and 34 Voices are helping raise awareness of what drivers face on U.S. 34 .

"There's just continual accidents and an increase in traffic," Highway 34 Coalition member Michele Schnicker said.

Schnicker's husband was killed last year when a semi driver dozed off on U.S. 34 . His truck drifted across the center line and hit Doug Schnicker head on.

"I don't want him to be a statistic," she added.

Forty-one percent of U.S. 34 between Burlington and Monmouth is marked as no-passing, according to the Highway 34 Coalition.

Improvements are being made to part of the road. A 5.8-mile bypass is being built around Biggsville , 8.1 miles east of Burlington and 10.8 miles west of Monmouth . While the four-lane bypass is expected to be complete in late November, the rest of the road will remain two lanes.

School safety

West Central High School and Elementary School is at the corner of U.S. 34 and Illinois 96. For West Central Superintendent Ralph Grimm , learning the Biggsville bypass was going to be built came with a sigh of relief.

"The biggest benefit is safety, and we'll lower the number of cars from in front of our school. It will be much safer to (enter and exit the school) when that traffic count goes down," he said.

In May 2007 , Melissa Salcedo-Munoz was killed in an accident on U.S 34 in front of the West Central schools.

Her death spurred the start of 34 Voices, a group of West Central High School students vocal about the need to make U.S. 34 four lanes in Warren and Henderson counties.

Illinois state Sen. John Sullivan visited the group in 2008 and said they had a major impact.

"I was very impressed with them, and they were a big voice on getting U.S. 34 on the capital bill in 2009," he said.

Grimm knows his former students' work will benefit the schools' future.

"The idea my students won't have to interact with large amounts of traffic certainly enhances the schools," he said.

While the bypass will help getting in and out of the schools, students who travel from Gulfport, Ill. ; Oquawka, Ill. ; and Gladstone, Ill. , must drive on parts of U.S. 34 not being widened.

"Certainly we want to see all of 34 four-lane for the safety aspect of our district," Grimm added.

Southeast Iowa Regional Planning notes 9,700 vehicles crossed the Illinois - Iowa border on U.S. 34 each day in 2010, but many believe that number has gone up and more are on the way.

Economic growth

It is projected up to 17,500 travelers a day will use U.S. 34 by 2025.

"You read the papers, and you see more and more jobs are coming to Burlington and Monmouth , which means more and more semis will be on that road," Highway 34 Coalition chairman Kurt McChesney said at a 20 Miles by 2020 rally in June.

Schuytema added one project in Monmouth could add 1,000 trucks a week to U.S. 34's traffic count.

"The eastern-most storage unit for Smith Foods is going in Monmouth ," he said. "When that's up and running, an extra 1,000 trucks will be going in and out of Monmouth , and we need multiple quick ways to get them in and out of our community."

David Toyer , director of economic development in Burlington , believes more opportunities will come to the area if U.S. 34 is widened to four lanes.

"Transportation mobility is a huge part of being able to encourage economic development," he said. "It is a critical factor companies look at."

Sullivan added expanding the highway could lead to new gas stations and stores in Henderson County .

Funding options

Construction zones have been added to U.S. 34 due to the bypass construction. The bypass is funded through the 2009 Illinois Jobs Now capital program, and is costing the state of Illinois $40.5 million .

"This stretch was entirely funded by state funds, and normally projects like this are a mix of federal and state funds," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the next opportunity for another capital bill to fund other portions of U.S. 34 project is in January. Schuytema said this leaves one challenge for U.S. 34 travelers.

"I think our job is just keep letting legislators know it's a problem. You have to make sure you are loud and sane enough of a voice that you get a piece of that bill," Schuytema said.

Sullivan has been the voice for the people of Henderson and Warren counties to make the road four-lane, and he plans to continue to voice the matter.

"It's a top priority for myself, that's why I worked very hard to get the bypass," Sullivan said. "(The bypass) has given us a lot of momentum to get more funds since we've started the project."

While Illinois taxpayers are footing the entire bypass bill, federal options are starting to come forward.

In July, Schnicker met with staff members for U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos , who represents Henderson County and is in full support of making U.S. 34 four-lane.

"After hearing from local residents about the benefits of this project, I am a strong supporter of expanding U.S. 34 from two lanes to four lanes, because it will not only lead to local job creation and ease safety concerns, but it also will pave the way for further economic development across our district in the future," Bustos said.

Bustos serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee , which successfully pushed for Congress to pass the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014 in July. The act will fund surface transportation programs through May 2015 .

"This is a sign of optimism for federal funding," Sullivan said. "I hope this gives them momentum for another program to fund more transportation projects.

Schnicker learned there's a federal option she is looking into: The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Grant.

"I've been looking very heavily into this grant and researching it," Schnicker said.

TIGER grants provide funds to transportation projects that will deliver five long-term outcomes:

*â safety;

*â economic competitiveness;

*â state of good repair;

*â livability; and

*â environmental sustainability.

The program has provided $4.1 billion to projects throughout the U.S., more than $1 billion to roads alone.

The grants are competitive, and local governments must apply by April.

"I would say we would be foolish if we didn't go after it next year," Schnicker said.

In 2013, TIGER grants funded a similar project to Arkansas 34. The Arkansas Department of Transportation received $4.96 million in federal funds for the highway, which recently saw a significant uptick in traffic and is considered to be a rural area in the state.

All construction preparation has been done for U.S. 34 , and two sections on either side of the Biggsville bypasss are ready to be constructed once the project gets funds.

"Two other segments are ready to go. We just need the money to do it," said Kensil Garnett , Illinois DOT acting Region 3 engineer.

The highway expansion project is broken into four sections: from Carman Road to the bypass; Biggville bypass; bypass to Kirkwood, Ill. ; and Kirkwood, Ill. to Monmouth, Ill. The three remaining sections are estimated to cost $235 million .

After the Flood of 2008 and the decertification of a key Henderson County levee, the 8.1 miles between Carman Road and the Biggsville bypass are not cleared to be constructed, even though it was planned to be the original starting point of the construction.

Schnicker said members of Highway 34 Coalition are in constant contact with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to recertify the levee.

While U.S. 34 travelers wait for an improved highway, they know their voice still must be heard.

"We just need to continue to have these conversations," Schnicker said.


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