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I-255 extension opens for Metro East commuters

Of the Intelligencer

WOOD RIVER &emdash; "I think this is wonderful. I'm as pleased as punch for what this means to the area," State Sen. Evelyn Bowles, D-Edwardsville, said after watching Illinois Governor Jim Edgar offically open a new 6.8-mile stretch of Route 255 from Interstate 270 north to Illinois 143 near Wood River Tuesday morning.

The new highway, titled Illinois Route 255 instead of Interstate 255 because no interstate funds were involved, is the first phase of what is to become the Alton Bypass, going around Alton to Grafton. It officially opened to traffic after the 11 a.m. ceremony and was heavily traveled by the evening rush hour Tuesday.

In cutting the ribbon to open the $88.7 million stretch of highway, Edgar told the crowd of several hundred local leaders, "This highway is an important addition to the transportation infrastructure of the Metro-East area. It will provide a valuable corridor of economic growth between Alton and Interstate 270 and is a vital link to the interstate system around the greater St. Louis region."

The governor continued, "Illinois 255 also will provide much needed relief to traffic congestion on existing state highways and local roads in the area. We estimate that 8,000 vehicles per day will use this highway when it is opened, and that number is expected to increase to more than 28,000 vehicles per day within 10 years."

Speaking to reporters, Edgar said he is opposed to using any of the $3.2 billion state surplus at the end of the fiscal year for further highway improvements. "Highways should be funded by highway tax dollars. That is my position," he said.

"For the first time in modern history, we have a cash balance that is close to adequate. When you see what is happening internationally, we might be glad we have that. I wish we had that kind of cushion when I took office," the governor said.

Commenting on the need for funds for Route 159 improvements and the continuation of Route 255 to Godfrey, Edgar said, "a gas tax (increase) is possible, but you won't have many legislators say that in the next three weeks," referring to the Nov. 3 election approaching.

Edgar told reporters he feels it will be about 10 years before Route 255 is completed. "We don't have growth in our (highway) taxes now. Gasoline prices are down, so our revenue is down," he said.

Edgar told the crowd that engineering and land acquisition is proceeding for extensions of 255 from the new end point to Illinois 267 at Godfrey, north of Alton. That 15 mile stretch is expected to cost about $200 million.

State Rep. Jay Hoffman told reporters at the scene of the opening ceremony above Madison Avenue east of South Roxana that the next phase of the Route 255 project will cost about $80 million. "This and the Route 159 project should be top priorities in the coming years," but he warned, "We have to stop diverting money out of road funds to other areas. After the election, we need to sit down and see how we can do this."

Hoffman said the Route 159 improvements would cost only about $30 million, and $7 million already has been allocated.

"We should look at doing Route 159 in stages, if not all at once," Hoffman said.

Bowles said she recognizes, "there is only so much money in the pot, but Madison County has had the short end of the stick for such a long time, we're just beginning to get our share."

She warned that there are those in the legislature who want to divert highway funds for an airport or for other projects. "I understand the cost of highway construction is extremely expensive, but we have to find a way to pay for it," she said.

The new section of Route 255 opened Tuesday began with design work in June 1993. The project required 24 bridges to be built, 3.3 million cubic yards of earth to be moved and 300,000 tons of asphalt to be placed for the four-lane facility. Major interchanges were constructed at Poag Road and Madison Avenue near South Roxana.

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