prospect widening 2

Cars pass each other in the narrow lanes of Prospect Avenue on Monday, July 8, 2019, north of Springfield Avenue in Champaign.

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CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois Department of Transportation says it’s “very unlikely” that a project to improve Prospect Avenue would convert the entire stretch from Springfield Avenue to Interstate 74 into five lanes.

Instead, the department indicated that it’s targeting major intersections with no left-turn lanes and “numerous” side-swiping accidents.

State officials rattled homeowners in that section of town when they announced an $18.5 million project last week to improve and widen Prospect between Springfield and I-74, part of a six-year capital plan funded in part by a 19-cent increase in the motor fuel tax. Prospect is maintained by the state in that stretch, as it’s also U.S. 150.

IDOT released more details Wednesday, saying the project was prompted both by safety concerns at intersections and overall pavement conditions.

Joe Schatteman, community outreach liaison for IDOT Region 4, said it’s too early to say which sections of Prospect might be widened. Prospect is already five lanes from I-74 down to roughly Beardsley Avenue but narrows to four tight lanes through a heavily residential section until just before Springfield.

“We will need input from the various stakeholders on the project before making that decision,” Schatteman said Wednesday.

He said accident data were a factor in IDOT’s decision to move ahead on the project.

“There are numerous side-swipe accidents in the same direction along this corridor due to no turning lanes at the signalized intersections,” Schatteman said.

He didn’t provide details, but the only two Prospect intersections with traffic signals and no left-turn lanes are at University Avenue and Church Street.

“Putting a left-turn lane in there would probably require widening,” said city Engineer Dave Clark.

‘Stakeholder involvement’

Schatteman said the state will need to acquire some land for right of way on the project, but the amount will depend on the scope of work.

“We do take into consideration if we are working in a commercial or residential area. The needs in those areas could be entirely different,” he said.

He said there will be a public information meeting with city officials, homeowners and other stakeholders before any construction takes place.

“We want to make sure that we have stakeholder involvement in a project of this magnitude,” he said.

Champaign officials were caught off guard when the project was announced July 3, as they didn’t know it was coming.

Clark told homeowners in an email Tuesday that no construction would likely take place before 2025. Schatteman agreed, saying that the planning and design phases would come first, along with public hearings.

The city would have to cover the costs of sidewalks, streetlights and other features, as well as some engineering work, Clark said. That’s fairly common for a state project through an urban area.

For example, Champaign likes to install black traffic signals “because they just look better,” Clark said, while the state pays only for standard aluminum fixtures.

The Champaign City Council would have to sign off on any cost-sharing agreement, he said.

‘One helluva fight’

A state proposal to widen Springfield Avenue to five lanes from Russell Street east through central Champaign generated fierce local opposition back in 1988, and the council eventually voted not to endorse it on a tense, 5-4 vote.

“It was kind of sprung on the city,” recalled then-Mayor Dannell McCollum, who vigorously opposed the project. “It was one helluva fight.”

Designed to alleviate east-west traffic congestion, it would have eliminated scores of trees and most of the parkway, leaving sidewalks right next to the street, he said.

“I thought it would have an extraordinarily deleterious effect on the neighborhood, for which we have a rush 15 minutes, probably,” McCollum said.

He’s irked that the latest project was a surprise to the city, too, and questioned the use of the gas-tax increase for the project.

“It was justified by trying to fix the failing infrastructure,” he said. “This isn’t a bridge that crosses the Mississippi. It’s a disruption of a street, most of which is residential.

“And it creates new infrastructure to maintain,” he added.

McCollum was mollified after hearing that the work would be targeted at intersections but said he wants to know more.

“What we’ve done is just time after time created more space for the cars,” compromising the quality of life in cities and the desirability of neighborhoods, said McCollum, an avid bicyclist.

Clark said IDOT doesn’t want to “muscle their way in here and do something that nobody wants. That’s not their objective.

“They want a safe corridor to eliminate the accident problem, but they also want to work with stakeholders and citizens and the city. The long lead time allows for that.”

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).