"The Boy in Blue" at the corner of North Main and Auburn streets in Rockford. (Photo by Jon McGinty)
By Jon McGinty
The multi-million-dollar roundabout construction project at North Main and Auburn streets is nearing completion. Begun in April, the new configuration is intended to relieve congestion and improve traffic safety at the busy intersection, which handles more than 26,000 vehicles each day.
The intersection has been closed for the past nine days to accommodate workers and equipment as they complete curbs, gutters, paving and light installations. When it opens today (Wednesday, Sept. 25), the roundabout will be restricted to single-lane traffic until landscaping and other amenities are finished next month. The final configuration will be a two-lane roundabout.
“I believe this will be the only two-lane roundabout on a state highway in Illinois,” said Jim Ryan, Rockford city administrator.
The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has been involved in the project from the start, since Illinois Route 2 follows Main Street at that location. They will also pay the lion’s share of the $10 million construction bill, while Rockford picks up the tab for lighting, landscaping and water main improvements.
Controversy has also surrounded the project from the beginning. Many drivers, business owners and others voiced objections to the roundabout concept, a relatively new idea in this part of Illinois.
“Historically, this has been a very dangerous intersection with lots of accidents,” said Matthew Vitner, Rockford city engineer. “It’s very compacted, the sight distances are poor. We determined that a roundabout would be the safest design, since it all but eliminates right-angle crashes. It’s also proven — especially in America, where people are not used to them — that roundabouts function more efficiently over time.”
In response to the criticism that semi-trailers will have difficulty traversing the intersection, Vitner points out that the perimeter of the center circle is designed to accommodate off-tracking trailers by allowing them to ride over the sloping curb without disrupting the landscape.
Civil War statue
"The Boy in Blue" Civil War statue at the corner of North Main and Auburn streets. (Photo by Jon McGinty)
Another controversial element has been the potential impact of the new roadway on the Civil War statue and monument located on the intersection’s northeast corner. The statue was originally purchased by the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors in 1900 as part of a fountain to adorn the north entrance to the county courthouse on West State Street. The 1970 plaque at the base of the statue, which dates the purchase to 1877, is wrong.
In 1967, the fountain portion was destroyed as workmen moved it to storage in the county highway department yard while a new courthouse was built. The statue was returned to the foyer of the northeast entrance in the new building in 1969, but suffered some vandalism and was eventually enclosed in a glass case.
In 1984, as a collaborative effort by the county board, the Rockford Park District, Greenwood Cemetery and the North End Businessmen’s Association, the “Boy in Blue” was again moved to its present location. The pillar on which it stands once adorned the façade of the Carnegie Library on Wyman Street. Also, interred under the statue were the remains of an unknown Civil War soldier, part of a collection of artifacts from Memorial Hall.
Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) convened a “stakeholders” meeting of interested parties last October to discuss plans and options for the roundabout project and the statue. Attendees included aldermen, architects and construction engineers, as well as representatives from the City of Rockford, neighborhood groups and Memorial Hall.
According to several in attendance at that meeting, many ideas were discussed, including putting the statue in the middle of the roundabout, moving it to Memorial Hall, or leaving it where it is. Apparently, no consensus was reached about its disposition.
“We finally left the statue where it was, because — due to the fact it is a state project — we were on a tight time frame to get this built,” Ryan said. “The statue was not part of the final construction documents. And, since there are human remains there, we didn’t want to get into a whole long process that would delay the construction. [Putting the statue in the middle] was ultimately not acceptable to the state. They didn’t want it to become a visual distraction for drivers.”
And so, while just about everything else at the intersection has been moved, removed or altered, the Civil War statue has not.
Scott Lewandowski, manager at Veterans Memorial Hall, has become a “point man” for people wanting the statue moved to that venerable building downtown.
“I think [the statue] is at risk for damage anywhere near the roundabout,” Lewandowski said. “The citizens of Rockford will have a steep learning curve on how to navigate it, and I think some of them may jump the curb.”
Also, according to Lewandowski’s research, road vibrations might also harm the statue, since it is made of zinc plates welded together, and over time, the seams could split.
“I think the statue is a Winnebago County asset, and it belongs on county property at Memorial Hall,” Lewandowski said. “Its purchase was authorized by the same board that decided at its next meeting to build Memorial Hall itself. We would put it on the east side of our building, facing the Rock River. It could become a destination location for tourists. It would be seen by over 20,000 people that come into Memorial Hall each year, in addition to visitors to downtown for other events or locations.”
To further his cause, Lewandowski presented a proposal to the Winnebago County Board in June 2011, which became a resolution “authorizing the initiation of actions by the County of Winnebago to move the County statue at Main and Auburn to Memorial Hall.” The resolution remains open, and has yet to be acted upon.
Branding the circle
Meanwhile, Ryan and others recently developed a plan to “brand” the roundabout by tying its name and design into the military history of the neighborhood. Camp Fuller, a Civil War training facility, operated for five months in 1862 in the Churchill’s Grove area about three blocks from the intersection. And Greenwood Cemetery, just behind the statue, contains the remains of more than 500 Civil War veterans.
Their design, which was just approved by IDOT, includes installing an 80-foot flagpole in the center island, from which will fly a barracks-size American flag that will be illuminated by floodlights at night. The four corners outside the traffic circle will contain low stone walls, next to which will be displayed 3-foot-by-5-foot metal plaques commemorating four eras of U.S. military history, from 1776 to the present. The area would be named Veterans Memorial Circle.
“We think [these design ideas] have a lot of merit,” Ryan said, “something that can bring out the history of the neighborhood, something unique to Rockford. Other than Camp Grant, there are not many other areas in Rockford that have that much military history.”
Ryan admits that this updated design might still necessitate moving the Civil War statue, but not very far.
“As far as the roundabout project is concerned, the statue could stay right where it is,” Ryan said. “And it doesn’t detract from the idea of celebrating veterans there. But it is not visually ‘centered’ on the circle, and if you are going to maximize how it could look relative to the intersection, it should be moved about 20 feet or so towards the southwest.”
A meeting of the stakeholders has recently been scheduled by the mayor’s office for Wednesday, Oct. 2, to discuss these changes as well as try to settle the final disposition of the statue. There has also been some preliminary discussion about a further plan to open a pedestrian entrance to Greenwood Cemetery near the roundabout intersection.
Where are the veterans?
It is interesting to note that a project planned to honor veterans has yet to include any veterans in the project. As far as we can determine, no representatives of any local veterans’ organizations were in attendance at the first stakeholders meeting, nor have any been invited to this second meeting.
Ashley “Dave” Davis is president of the Winnebago County Veterans Association (WCVA), an umbrella organization which includes all 23 veterans groups in the county.
“I personally like the idea of moving the statue to Memorial Hall,” Davis said. “The proposed location there is very nice and accessible, and it’s an appropriate place for him to be. I never met a local veteran who says they like it where it’s at now, but I’ve had many who tell me they’d like to see it moved downtown.
“My main concern with its present location is how close it is to the traffic,” Davis added. “Also, will there be ample parking for people who want to walk up to the statue? I don’t see it being readily available for foot traffic.”
As far as the new plans for the area, Davis likes the idea of naming the roundabout Veterans Memorial Circle.
“But I wish they would have included the vets in the planning,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have veterans backing this idea, or have a little input on the plans?”
Apparently, the stakeholders meeting next month will have a full agenda.
From the Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 2013, issue