Illiana Expressway hurtles toward homeowners, farmers

2013-12-07T18:00:00Z 2013-12-08T13:00:10Z Illiana Expressway hurtles toward homeowners, farmersKeith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com
December 07, 2013 6:00 pm  • 

A decade ago, Kim and Dave Stengel slept in a brother's South Chicago Heights basement for seven months and spent all their spare time on a home-building site in a rural subdivision just north of Lowell.

With help from families and friends, they built their four-bedroom dream home, where they raised their three children and dreamed of a retirement overlooking the cornfields to the south and the lines of trees on distant hills.

They can't quite remember when that dream turned to a nightmare. Maybe it was when they saw the now-infamous "Blue Line" published in the newspaper.

That blue line, passed off by state officials as just a concept seven years ago, is today a line of stakes and flags running up to the edge of their backyard and 45 miles westward to Interstate 55, in Illinois.

"I never thought anything like this could happen," said Kim Stengel on a recent afternoon at the dining room table, with a view of the cornfield where the expressway will run on a 30-foot-high embankment. "I don't want to lose my home, but I also don't want to live right next to an expressway."

For those whose houses lie in the path or along the route of the planned expressway, it is as if they are suddenly caught in a movie where a giant asteroid is headed directly at the Earth and no one is willing to do anything about it.

The current route for the expressway was chosen from more than a dozen possibilities in part because it would have the least impact of any route on homes, farms and businesses, according to Indiana Department of Transportation Planners.

In all, their final environmental studies asserted just 41 homes, 43 farms and about 2,000 acres of farmland would be directly affected. But that doesn't count the even larger number of homeowners and farmers who exist in a twilight zone similar to the Stengels, not knowing if some, none or all of their property will be taken.

Two miles away from the Stengels, in the farmhouse she and her late husband moved into more than 50 years ago, 88-year-old Jean Hulsey feels the same seemingly implacable forces bearing down upon her.

Hulsey has fought the expressway for years, even going to Indianapolis eight years ago to protest passage of Indiana's highway privatization legislation.

The proposed Illiana Expressway has inched closer and closer to reality in the years since. Now, a main overpass would end within hollering distance of where she and her husband raised eight children and many of her 18 grandchildren come to play. Its drainage would affect her rolling farm fields.

"I saw that big blue line in the newspaper and I've been fighting them ever since," Hulsey said. "But they just ignore us."

She has a stack of copies of the 100 letters she sent to public officials over the years in a plastic pouch on her back porch. The five responses she received also are there.

On Tuesday, she gave emotional testimony that hushed the room before a planning agency committee that was considering a vote of approval for the Illiana Expressway. About 20 others also pleaded for committee members to reject the expressway.

The committee voted in favor by an 18-8 vote, moving the proposal on to the full planning agency board to consider in a decisive vote scheduled for Thursday.

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