By Jim Hagerty
PRAIRIE STREET BREWHOUSE – If you thought it was a going away party for Larry Morrissey you wouldn’t have been remiss.
The casual setting of downtown’s Prairie Street Brewhouse provided the backdrop for the outgoing mayor’s final legislative push Tuesday as dozens of residents gathered to get a look at a host of drawings that could represent how the Whitman Interchange will be overhauled to meet today’s transportation standards.
The plan is to redesign what leaders are calling an outdated network of ramps, roads and bridges that need to better accommodate about 50,000 vehicles a day.
“It was important for us to get this out there,” Morrissey said Tuesday night. “It’s been a project I shepherded. It’s been controversial. I would not want to put that burden to introduce it on the next mayor.”
That particular burden will escape the incoming Tom McNamara, though with the interchange in his current 3rd Ward it is certainly a project he’s familiar with, and one Morrissey says McNamara has the political chops to see through.
“Until you have to sit in the seat and be the person with all the answers instead of the person with all the questions, it’s difficult,” said Morrissey. “But I think Tom has a lot of good experience to see out this battle.”
As its stands, the structure connects IL-251 to downtown. Built in the 1960s, it encompasses green space that could be better utilized according to modern economic development practices.
“We can recapture 17 acres of developable land that is essentially useless right now, because it’s in the middle of the interchange,” City of Rockford engineer Jeremy Carter said.
More than 100 homes were torn down to build the existing structure. Residential and commercial redevelopment, Carter said, would make better use of downtown and simultaneously improve the driving experiences for motorists on the new structure.
“Currently, if you are in the east side of the river, downtown kind of stops at Jefferson Street, maybe even Market,” Carter said. “On the west side, that’s not necessarily the case. Downtown really connects up to Whitman.”
Morrissey echoed those statements, saying not only was the project design the “fiscally responsible option,” but that the new plan would overcome what he sees as a negative outcome for the city in the construction of the original interchange.
The mayor added that the neighborhoods currently detached from downtown by the interchange would be inline for a much-needed revival, and that reclaiming the open space of the current layout could increase the city’s tax base.
Tuesday’s public session was the first since 2014 on the project. The city spent nearly $500,000 in 2012 to study what an overhaul of the interchange would entail. The result was slow moving from there. Aside from removing one of the unsafe Whitman overpasses, a complete redesign was delayed in light of other downtown projects such as the UW Sports Factory and the Amerock Embassy Suites.
“To understand why this has taken so long, we have to go back to the beginning, when there was a concept released that as not fully baked,” Carter said. “It was leaked to the public, so a lot of people grabbed a hold of it and spent a lot time addressing it, and whether the public wanted a connection to Rural Street.”
Right now, southbound traffic has no access to Rural, which ends at Longwood Street. There, eastbound cars can go north to Highway 251, or cross Longwood westbound onto the Whitman Street Bridge.
“We took all of that information and pretty much scrapped that initial plan and started from scratch,” Carter said. “We started putting together what would become what is being presented today.”
The new plan calls for possible connections to Rural Street at Longwood including bike and pedestrian routes.
The next step after the public input stage is for aldermen to build a design into their capital improvement plan. It would then make its way through the channels of city council. Carter said he would rather see leaders decide on a plan as soon as possible to avoid further delays.
“When aldermen say, ‘Go,’ we don’t want to have a five-year process,” he said. “We want to have plans that are ready.”
And Morrissey says he’s ready to pitch in when needed.
“If it comes down to it, I’ll be down there to fill my allowed three minutes of speaking time at council to make sure the city knows how important this project really is.”
Managing Editor Shane Nicholson contributed to this report.