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Prairie Parkway Divides Western Suburbs

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Prairie Parkway Divides Western Suburbs

A new highway opened this morning in the west suburbs. As part of a daylong grand opening celebration yesterday, thousands of cyclists took over the new south extension of the North-South Tollway. Now, it’s just cars, cars, and more cars. Out there, the number of cars—and the people that drive them—has steadily increased over the years. That’s as city dwellers and suburbanites have moved farther and farther west into what was once primarily farmland. About 30 miles west of the new I-355 south extension, plans for another new road have local communities planning—and bracing—for the future.

Think driving over and hour west of downtown Chicago will get you out of the bustling metropolitan area known as Chicagoland? That’s what Yorkville Mayor Valerie Burd thought when she moved to Kendall County 20-some years ago.

BURD: When I moved out here, I felt like I was on my way to Iowa, but now we’re right in the middle of everything.

Standing at the intersection of Routes 47 and 34, Mayor Burd says the traffic here is causing major problems.

BURD: We worry about emergency vehicles getting through at high-peak times.

There are a couple of solutions in the works. One is to widen 47, which is currently just two lanes through downtown Yorkville. Another is to build an entirely new road west of 47. The Prairie Parkway would connect I-88 and I-80 through Kane, Kendall and Grundy Counties. But plans for the Parkway are dividing some in the community.

The village of Kaneville is one of two municipalities that have come out officially against the Parkway. It’s a place where you can catch a view that doesn’t include a single manmade structure. But at the corner of Harter and Main is a building that houses town hall, a library, the post office, an office for the Kane County Sherriff and a bank.

It’s also where the Lunch Bunch meets every other Tuesday. They worry about the noise trucks traveling on the parkway will bring to their community, and about the farmland it will take out of production.

But it’s complicated. Here’s Doris Nyer …

NYER: We don’t approve of it at all.

Alice Hulka agrees…

HULKA: Why don’t they just take Route 47?

But Margaret Stover lives on Route 47…

STOVER: No! Get a little of our medicine.

NYER: Well, if you had it widened out, it wouldn’t be any worse than it is now.

STOVER: It sure would.

NYER: Why?

STOVER: You’d have twice the traffic. That’s why we need Prairie Parkway.

NYER: Oh, you’re for it?

STOVER: I sure am.

NYER: You don’t have to contend with it.

STOVER: Not any idea. How long I have to sit in my driveway sometimes to get on the road. I used to roller skate on Route 47. Now you can’t walk across it.

But Hulka worries about farmers getting from one side of the Parkway to the other:

HULKA: I feel sorry for the farmers, where it cuts their farm, and they can’t get from one part to the other without driving. All that equipment. You ever get behind some of those? I got behind pea-pickers the other day. 5 of ‘em. I like to see that though, that’s alright.

Just about 5 miles south of Kaneville, Big Rock is another Kane County town where you might get stuck behind a pea-picker.

RICHARD SACKS: The town’s a very slow-paced community, very quiet…

Richard Sacks is the Village Administrator for Big Rock.

SACKS: very slow feel to it. People are very friendly here. Everybody knows everybody else, pretty much.

Sacks says the parkway will have a major impact on Big Rock. That’s why the village board voted to oppose it. But, Sacks says, they’re moving forward with the expectation that the parkway is on the way:

SACKS: The best thing we can do as a community is take advantage of it. So if we have to put up with the effects of its physical presence, the traffic, and all that that brings then we should at least be able to enjoy some of the potential benefits that it will bring in terms of tax base and the kinds of businesses that want to relocate here.

About 10 miles south of Big Rock, the Kendall County city of Plano is approaching the coming road with far less resignation. When I visit city hall, Mayor Bill Roberts takes me straight back to a conference room he calls “the war room.” The walls are papered with land-use maps…

ROBERTS: Now this developer owns all this property, and you can see that they know what the value is going to be of all this, so this is all commercial.

Roberts has lived in Plano for over 50 years—and he says he has some close friends whose property is in the way of the parkway, and others who are simply against development. Still, he’s excited about the possibilities he says the new highway will bring.

ROBERTS: It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think that here’s an interstate highway, it’s not hard to think that wow, this might be a great place to put a warehouse, trucks can come here, the railroad is here… and a willing workforce. [yeah, I see it’s very colorful around here] it is, isn’t it amazing how purple that is? That’s manufacturing and warehousing, commercial uses.

Those commercial areas are good, Roberts says, because they add to the tax base without greatly increasing the need for services—like schools. And he echoes Yorkville Mayor Burd’s concerns about traffic to the east on Route 47. Both mayors say that they’d like to see the Prairie Parkway built—and 47 widened.

And nearly everything is in place to get started on the Parkway. In 2005, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert secured over 200 million dollars in federal funds to build it. The state even kicked in 32 million dollars in the hard-fought 2008 budget.

The road just needs approval from the Federal Highway Administration, and construction could start as soon as the spring of 2009.

MEYERS: There’s still a lot left to do.

Stacey Meyers is the policy director for the Openlands Project, a conservation organization that opposes the parkway.

Meyers points out that the total projected cost for the Parkway is 1 billion dollars. And as state legislators work on a capital bill in Springfield, they could decide to not put any more money toward the project.

MEYERS: We’re at a wonderful juncture where people can really make a difference by telling the people that represent them that they want their money for a smarter option.

Meyers says the 80-88 connector belongs farther east—where there’s more development, and more people to use the road.

Sim Soot is the former director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He says the problem with moving the roadway closer to developed areas is exactly that—it’s already developed. And he notes another paradox at play in this fight over exurban land.

SOOT: Farmers need to be close to the market, and the closer you are to the market, the more valuable your farmland.

That’s in terms of farmers selling their product—but also in terms of selling their land for development:

SOOT: There are great number of farmers on the edge of urban areas recognize that the city is growing and, in essence, are waiting for the day where they can sell their land for much more for urban purposes as opposed to agricultural purposes.

Soot says the good news is that urban areas make up only about three percent of U.S. land. That gives farmers an opportunity to not just sell their land… but to move, following the trend, farther and farther west.

I’m Kristin Moo. Chicago Public Radio.

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