Interstate 53

Every two years the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) releases the latest Illinois highway map, the most up-to-date illustration of the state’s motor vehicle transportation infrastructure. Most of the time a sharp-eyed observer can spot areas of progress on new or expanded highways in the state. In recent years, that might have included the progress of the Illinois 336/Chicago-Kansas City Expressway project in western Illinois, or the Interstate 255 extension in the Metro-East area.

Ever since the first plan for Illinois’ “hard roads” was introduced more than 100 years ago there have been revisions, additions and even some subtractions. For example, nowhere on that Illinois map will you find Interstate 53. Nor will you spot Interstate 66. Even if you turn the map over to the expanded view of the large cities of Illinois, you will not see a Crosstown Expressway in Chicago.

But all of these projects and more were once on the drawing board for parts of Illinois at various times in its history. All of them gained at least some support, but eventually fell by the wayside, either because of local opposition, environmental concerns or just a lack of interest.

Some of these projects even made if off the drawing board and into construction, at least in early stages, leaving disconnected stubs, “ghost ramps” or expressways in unlikely places.

Near the southwestern corner of Illinois, crossing the Mississippi River from the town of East Cape Girardeau in Alexander County is the modern, 100-foot-wide, four-lane Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. Named for an eight-term Missouri congressman who advocated for the project, the bridge connects Cape Girardeau, Missouri, with Illinois Route 146. It replaced a much older, much narrower highway bridge over the mighty river.

The Emerson Bridge was at one time thought to be the grand entrance to Illinois of an even-grander transcontinental interstate highway, Interstate 66. Originally conceived as a link between Washington DC and Los Angeles, the highway was named in order to stir up old memories of the classic Route 66 which once stretched from Chicago to L.A.

Interstate 66 would have crossed southernmost Illinois before merging with the existing Interstate 24 and crossing into Kentucky near Metropolis. A 1991 federal highway plan designated the proposed route from D.C. to L.A. as High Priority Corridor 3. The route was enthusiastically embraced by officials in Kentucky, a state which has long sought an east-west interstate route running the length of the state’s boundaries. It was not greeted the same way in the western states, which saw significant construction challenges with a new-terrain highway over the central Rocky Mountains and the desert. The western terminus was soon changed from Los Angeles to Wichita, Kansas.

Construction in Illinois would prove difficult as well, as the path would have taken the interstate across the Shawnee National Forest and through or near such protected areas as the Cache River wetlands. Gradually, the project lost momentum as one state after another dropped out. Even Kentucky came to the conclusion that the new road was not worth the cost and pulled out of the effort in 2005. Illinois continued to study a connection across the southernmost counties of the state, but finally threw in the towel in the summer of 2015.

It was not the first new-terrain interstate project to be cancelled in Illinois, nor was it the first to leave behind a few miles of new highway.

Peoria is the largest city in Illinois without a direct interstate connection to Chicago. But an early plan of Illinois interstates included a route north along the Illinois River to connect with Interstate 80 and then turn toward Chicago. Though the plan was not endorsed by the Federal Highway Administration, some preliminary construction was started at both ends. North of Peoria where the four-lane Illinois Route 6 bypass intersects with Illinois 29, a stub extension of the four-lane highway continues north for a few hundred feet, along with the stub of an off-ramp which leads nowhere, a so-called “ghost ramp” toward perhaps some future highway.

At the north end, a four-lane interstate highway was built south from I-80 in the late 1960s. Interstate 180 is one of the shortest interstate highways in the country, only 13 miles long. It eventually turns east, crosses over the Illinois River and ends near the site where a steel mill had been located in the 1960s. Just before the turn, the four-lane highway extends south toward Peoria for a few hundred yards before merging back into the two-lane Illinois 29 to proceed down the west side of the Illinois River.

In the 1970s and again in the 1990s, Illinois brought back the proposed Peoria-to-I-80 connection, calling it the Heart of Illinois Freeway. It gained the support of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which designated it Interstate 53. It did not gain much support from local farmers, who voiced strong objections to the route, as it would require the seizure of more farmland to build the new-terrain four-lane highway. Meanwhile, Interstate 39 was being constructed just a few miles to east in the early 1990s. Local elected officials, including then-Congressman and future U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood grew lukewarm to the proposal.

All this combined to sap support from the idea, which was formally cancelled by IDOT in 2002.

Meanwhile, Chicago had its own highway proposal which ultimately led nowhere. It was called the Crosstown Expressway, and would have swung west and south of the Loop, tying together the Kennedy Expressway (I-90) and the Dan Ryan (I-94). Designated I-494 it was meant to be a bypass route around downtown Chicago, but it too ran into opposition and was eventually shelved.

The construction of the Interstate highway system boomed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But by the mid-60s opposition was growing. In rural areas farmers objected to the loss of farmland, while in cities residents fought against highway projects which erased whole neighborhoods. New York, Memphis, Baltimore and other cities saw passionate resistance from residents who sought to defend their homes from the bulldozers. Chicago’s Crosstown Expressway was proposed at the height of this movement.

The Crosstown Expressway would have split off from the existing I-94 at 75th Street and then followed the Belt Railway and Cicero Avenue until rejoining I-94 near the Edens-Kennedy split, covering a distance of 22 miles in all. It would have alleviated some traffic congestion on the expressways through downtown, but at the cost of plowing under hundreds of homes and businesses along the proposed route.

Mayor Richard J. Daley proclaimed the project the “Roadway of the Future,” and attempted to tie it to other community improvements in an effort to ease some of the opposition so that construction could begin in the early 70s. But this did little to quiet the opposition and the project found itself hanging by a thread. That thread was soon cut by the poor economy and high inflation of the early 1970s, which drove costs up over $1 billion. Following Daley’s death, Mayor Jane Byrne and Governor Jim Thompson cancelled the project in 1979, eventually re-allocating the funds to extensions of Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) rail lines to O’Hare and Midway airports.

The plans for the Crosstown Expressway remained on file, and the route would appear again in the 21st century. In 2001 Mayor Richard M. Daley put forward a plan for a CTA rapid transit line to be called the Mid-City Transitway along the same route. An idea for building the expressway as a toll highway was briefly revived in 2007, but no highway was built.

Even without these cancelled interstate projects, Illinois remains the transportation hub of the nation. Transcontinental highways crisscross the state, carrying goods from Illinois producers and to Illinois markets. Illinois maintains 2185 miles of interstate highway, the third largest interstate highway system in the nation.