By Sharon Woods Harris
Pekin Daily Times
Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bill Fleming on Monday told the Pekin City Council of the accomplishments of the organizations Transportation Committee.
The Council seated two new members earlier this year — Michael Garrison and Jim Schramm. The city has also hired new personnel, so Fleming wanted to tell them of past accomplishments and transportation needs important to the city of Pekin.
Pekin City Manager Tony Carson said prior to the meeting that the city supports “anything that will improve transportation in the city” and “something that will be beneficial to our residences and our businesses.”
The chamber of commerce has served Pekin businesses for close to 125 years.
“Transportation, the moving of goods and people, has always been important to the chamber,” said Fleming.
The Transportation Committee was preceded by the chamber’s Good Roads Committee. In 1928, Fleming said, the committee said in its annual report, “The most important project before the committee was the speeding up of action on the paving of the proposed State Route 164 (Pekin to Tremont and Mackinaw). The new road will be of great assistance to the communities on the eastside, and the route will mean a marked extension of the Pekin trading area.”
By 1960, the focus was on what is now known as the Veterans Drive Project. Its original name was the Pekin Bypass and was often referred to as the ring road.
“And, the project almost happened 50 years ago,” said Fleming. “In fact, it was announced at a chamber board meeting that the final hurdle had been overcome and the project would start soon.
“I love how the news was recorded in the minutes of that chamber board meeting: ‘Upon hearing the news, the meeting was immediately adjourned and the event properly celebrated.’ Investment in transportation infrastructure was important to the chamber and to our community back then, and it still is today. Unfortunately, more hurdles were presented and the project died.”
But the project didn’t die, said Fleming. In 1994, Chamber Board President Carol Shields started the transportation committee to discuss future highway projects necessary for the growth of the Pekin area. The ring road was one of those projects resurrected.
The committee is made up of business leaders, representatives from the Illinois Department of Transportation, the city, other municipalities, Tazewell County, state and federal elected officials and agencies, airports, buses and more, said Fleming.
The VFW Road Corridor Study was initiated by IDOT and the city and completed in April 1996.
Fleming said the purpose was “to look at the viability of (Illinois) Route 9 traffic being diverted to the VFW corridor,” but at the time traffic counts were not high enough to move ahead, said Fleming. At that time, there was not enough traffic to justify the jurisdictional change. The committee looked for other ways to move ahead.
The city enacted a local gas tax at the request of the chamber in 1996.
“The city ultimately adopted a 4 cent per gallon tax, with 2 cents dedicated to Veterans Drive,” said Fleming “The importance of that move cannot be overstated.
“In several cases over the past 20 years, the city has qualified for funding because you had the local match available and were prepared to put some skin in the game. That has moved our community ahead of many other projects over the years. Many legislators have held Pekin up as a good example of how to build a road.”
More studies were done using the city’s local gas tax, Peoria Pekin Urbanized Transportation Study and an Illinois Tomorrow grant.
• September 2003, the 2.5 mile, 5-lane section of road between Broadway Road and Court Street opened to traffic at a cost of $6.1 million. Federal Funding, thanks to Congressman LaHood, was $3.7 million, while the state contributed $500,000, Tazewell County added $200,000 and the city’s share of $1.7 million came from the gas tax.
• November 2003, the section of Veterans Drive between Court and Commercial Drive opened near Walmart. The city received 70 percent in federal funding from PPUATS for the construction of the section with traffic signals. Fleming said it facilitated the renovation of East Court Village and the opening of the Walmart Supercenter in 2004.
• The need to widen Broadway from Schramm Drive east to the new Veteran’s Drive was considered a related part of this overall project. The city of Pekin and Tazewell County received Federal Funding through PPUATS for this joint project and the improvements were completed in late 2008.
• With the help of then Sen. Barack Obama and Congressman Ray LaHood, the city received $4.8 million in the 2007 federal transportation bill funding for the section from Broadway to Sheridan Road. The City’s match of 1.2 million came from the local gas tax. The construction began in October of 2012, and the section was open to traffic in the fall of 2013.
• In 2006, the southerly section of Veterans Drive was re-evaluated by IDOT, and it was interested in a route designation change for Route 9. The state furnished $30 million from the 2010 State Capital Bill for Veterans Drive and Court Street improvements. Sen. Koehler, D-Peoria, and Mayor Dave Tebben were instrumental in this funding. It was completed in 2016, but there is not enough money left over for the renovation of Court Street.
“The chamber’s transportation committee, working with the city, is continuing to pursue funding options to finish this phase of the project,” said Fleming. “And, we continue to look ahead.
“We are working with the other municipalities and our state and federal elected officials seeking funding for the rest of the project all the way to Fisher Road. Last year your city engineer estimated the cost to finish the road would be over 50 million … a very challenging number in today’s political environment.”
Fleming quoted LaHood when talking about the long fight for the road.
“Finally, during one of our many meetings with Congressman Ray LaHood, he told us, ‘it takes a long time to build a road.’ He told us that when he was trying to let us down easy, because we didn’t get some funding we were hoping for in a federal transportation bill.
“It has been a long time, but the chamber believes this road to Pekin is important. It has been one of the chamber’s top priorities for the past 23 years. The chamber has partnered with the city and gone to Peoria, to Springfield, and to Washington, DC, lobbying for Veterans Drive and asking for funding, and the Chamber will continue to work with any and all willing partners to push for the completion of this road to Pekin.
Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin