ROCKFORD -- Right now, the Illinois Tollway is undergoing it's largest expansion since it was built in 19-58, and that holds the potential to once again fuel economic development here much like the tollway's construction led to a boom on the city's east side. The question is 'are we ready to reap the potential rewards?'
In a series of reports, we'll examine the potential payoff of I-90 as a 'Road to Riches' for the Stateline.
We begin with the most iconic line from the movie 'Field of Dreams.' "If you build it, they will come." It promotes the idea of building with the hopes of cashing in on people coming, whether that be a small iconic baseball field in Iowa, or a major highway like the Jane Addams Tollway. 62 miles of Interstate Highway between O'Hare airport and Rockford which provides a bustling pipeline built to move commerce right to our doorstep. "That whole corridor, as the folks in Rockford know is a huge link of two airports and a lot of different communities and a lot of different job engines, a lot of employers along that corridor," says Kristi LaFleur, Executive Director of the Illinois Tollway.
She should know. At the tollway traffic control center, they monitor a corridor that's growing larger to carry even more. The rebuilding and expansion of the tollway over the next 4 years is part a 15 year, $12 billion dollar capital program expanding to the tollway to 6 lanes.. That will create more wide open road which will mean more commerce coming through the Rockford region.
It's already an extremely busy highway. Right now, the South Beloit toll plaza sees more than 46,000 cars and trucks every day. Belvidere a little bit less, around 37,000, but both are growing their traffic numbers, up 14% in the last 12 years. "We're seeing about 30% truck traffic in some of those toll plazas on the western sections of i-90," LaFleur says, "and because 90 is such a huge freight corridor..its another reason its such an economic engine for the region, because freight is really a driver of the economy here and we want to make sure we have the right infrastructure to handle it and handle it safely."
In fact, there's so much truck traffic, it has spawned a nickname for the tollway from the Chicago O'Hare are through the western suburbs. They call it 'the Golden Corridor', mostly because of the many companies the tollway has brought to the area along the roadway.
But a lot of that same traffic is passing right by Rockford. East side growth which once exploded towards the tollway has stalled, and the city of Rockford is showing little interest in investing to encourage more development around the major highway. All those trucks; all those cars; and all that business opportunity coming here if those drivers were stopping into Rockford, making purchases, and staying at local hotels The city could also recruit businesses wanting to take advantage of being so close to Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison. The resulting boom in tax dollars could be used for badly needed redevelopment, funding our schools, and improving our roads.
It's that local perspective that helped make the tollway expansion possible in the first place say LaFleur. "we definitely heard from the better roads association and their counterparts from across the region that we needed to prioritize transit and make this a green corridor, prepare for congestion in the future and do what we could to leverage this roadway to maximize the benefit."
A potential paved field of dreams and a driving force for the regions economy; our own road to riches if we have the vision to cash in.
Tuesday, we'll look into Rockford's property valuation crisis, which is hurting funding for city services and schools, and how investing in the 'Road to Riches' could reverse it.