GALENA, Ill. — Was the U.S. 20 expansion project in northwest Illinois resurrected Tuesday?
Optimism abounded after U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos met with about 20 area government and transportation officials Tuesday afternoon at Galena Middle School to discuss the long-dormant expansion of U.S. 20 to four lanes between Freeport and Galena.
Time will tell whether the meeting becomes the first step on the road to the revival of a project first proposed in the early 1990s. But area officials in attendance appeared to be energized by their discussion with Bustos.
Freeport Mayor James Gitz has as much reason as anyone to be pessimistic about a U.S. 20 expansion. First elected mayor in 1997, Gitz said Tuesday he has “waited 25 years for a congressperson that was actually going to put action behind his words” on the project.
When asked if Tuesday’s meeting made him hopeful, Gitz replied, “Absolutely.”
“Congresswoman Bustos has taken the initiative to convene with interested parties,” Gitz said. “Not only is she interested in the project, she wants to do something about it.”
Much of the hope coming out of the meeting appeared to rest with Bustos. Officials implored her to take the lead on obtaining federal funding for the U.S. 20 project and pledged to do all they could in support.
“When you’re looking at trying to do something in an area like this, we have to figure out how we can exercise some real clout to convince the governor, with some assistance from Washington, to fund this project so we can get it done,” said former Congressman John Cox, a Democrat who represented northwest Illinois for one term from 1991 to 1992. “If we’re going to move this forward, it will require federal leadership.”
Bustos is a freshman Democrat who represents northwest Illinois, including Jo Daviess County. She is one of 60 members on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.
She pledged to work with Illinois and other tri-state federal representatives — including Iowa’s Bruce Braley and Wisconsin’s Ron Kind — to build a coalition of support for the project, which is estimated to cost $1.2 billion.
“I’ll do what I can to fight for that. (But) I can’t sit here and promise — that’s a billion-dollar project,” Bustos said in a pre-meeting interview. “I will do what I can to work for it. Money is hard to come by.”
And money is basically all that’s keeping the project from moving forward. An Illinois Department of Transportation official said Tuesday that some planning still remains, but if funding came through, construction could start within two to three years.
Officials at Tuesday’s meeting pleaded for federal funding for the project in part because they are skeptical the state will dedicate enough funds to a project in a rural area like the northwest corner.
“The state of Illinois gets about a billion dollars from the fuel tax (annually) and most of that money is spent in Chicago,” Cox said.
Officials said the U.S. 20 expansion would be an economic boon to the region, which would also benefit from a better connection to Dubuque. For its part, the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce has in the past lobbied for the project.
The group also noted how Dubuque’s recovery from its economic woes of the 1980s coincided with the four-lane expansions of highways 20, 151 and 61.
Freeport is in a similarly dark place now, with unemployment above 10 percent. Gitz spoke passionately Tuesday about expanding U.S. 20 to four lanes with the expectation that it will do for his community what those other expansion projects did for Dubuque.
“We know in Freeport that if we do not get a four-lane highway up, our future is deeply if not irrevocably compromised,” Gitz said.