WASHINGTON PARK — Two loop ramps will be eliminated in favor of a diamond-shaped design at the new Interstate 64 and Illinois 111 interchange in Washington Park.
The Illinois Department of Transportation will also move human remains left behind during a cemetery move in the 1960s; erect a monument to the blacks and poor buried in the area; and include a pedestrian sidewalk and bicycle shoulder space on the new Illinois 111 Bridge.
These are some of the takeaways from an IDOT Open House held Tuesday at James Avant Elementary School in Washington Park. The goal was to inform the public of a $28.5 million project to replace the bridge and connecting ramps to improve safety and traffic flow.
“The bridge has been hit multiple times by trucks, and it may cause some displacement whether you see it or not,” said Washington Park Mayor Leonard Moore, one of about 25 area residents who have attended the open house.
“Bridges can collapse. I’ve seen it. And that’s something we don’t want to happen.”
The Illinois 111 Bridge, built in 1973, has deterioration issues and a clearance of 14 feet 2 inches (posted at 14 feet 1 inch as a precaution), according to IDOT. This compares to the current minimum standard of 16 feet and the desired clearance of 16 feet 9 inches.
Illinois 111 is also known as Kingshighway.
Moore said residents of Washington Park and surrounding communities will benefit from improvements to the Kingshighway and Bunkum Road intersection that are expected as part of the interchange project; and the allocation of deck space for pedestrians and cyclists.
The latter was the No. 1 priority for people who provided feedback during IDOT’s last public comment period on the exchange project in 2019.
Moore also gave his blessing to IDOT’s plan to move human remains from the old Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery for blacks and St. Clair County Cemetery for the poor and erect a monument.
“I have no doubt they’re going to do what’s necessary to satisfy the community,” Moore said.
Diamond shaped design
The diamond-shaped design is considered a better fit for the I-64 and Illinois 111 interchange than the current partial cloverleaf, according to Cindy Stafford, IDOT’s location studies engineer for Collinsville-based District 8.
On Tuesday, Stafford marked the two loop ramps on a map showing the locations and types of vehicle crashes over the past five years.
“These curves are pretty tight, and that leads to crashes quite often,” she said.
The interchange project is in the first of three phases, so plans are still evolving, but a concept map indicates that IDOT will need to purchase a few sections of private land to expand its right-of-way.
Stafford said construction would begin in 2024 or possibly 2025 at the earliest, depending on unexpected factors or changes in funding status.
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Carl Weissert, 80, of Fairview Heights, attended the open house because his family owns farmland on the southeast side of the interchange. Its main concern is good drainage.
“(The bridge replacement) shouldn’t be a negative,” he said. “That should be an improvement. I’m just here to make sure of that.”
Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery, also known as Lawn Ridge, was a popular burial site for black residents of East St. Louis, according to a 1968 article in the Belleville News-Democrat. It adjoined St. Clair County Cemetery for the Poor of All Races for a total of 25 acres.
Douglas-Lawnridge was largely abandoned after World War II and many headstones have disappeared.
The State of Illinois has hired Keeley Bros. Construction Co. in East St. Louis to move about 3,000 graves to Booker T. Washington Cemetery in Centerville and Sunset Memorial Gardens in Millstadt to make way for construction of I-64, the BND reported.
Weissert remembers the relocation project. The remains were put in boxes and transported by ambulance-hearse combinations belonging to his neighbour.
“That was before the freeway even existed,” Weissert said.
remember the dead
Former Washington Park resident Scott Rose spoke to IDOT officials from the Black Cemetery in 2019 during the first public comment period on the proposed exchange. State archaeologists later discovered human bones that had apparently been left by Keeley.
According to Joe Galloy, head of IDOT’s Cultural Resources Unit, the discovery triggered Illinois’ Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act, which provides guidelines on how to handle unmarked graves.
Another Washington Park resident who attended the open house on Tuesday was Malissa Blanchard, 73, a local activist and founding president of the nonprofit Community Awakening Civic Organization.
Blanchard has been pushing for the IDOT to erect a “grand” cemetery monument at the I-64 and Illinois 111 interchange for three years. She praised Mayor Moore for embracing the cause and ensuring local voices are heard and respected.
“These graves that have been disturbed will not go unnoticed,” Blanchard said. “At one point they were alive. They were human beings, not trash. We’ll never know their names, but we do know they existed.”
Galloy said human remains would be moved in conjunction with interchange construction and only in areas where excavations are planned.
Galley noted that archaeologists can usually peel off a surface layer and see anomalies in the ground that indicate the presence of burials underneath, then dig carefully to recover bones or other remains.
“We would make sure no one was left behind,” he said.
IDOT is conducting a survey on its website, asking people to comment generally on the proposed exchange and specifically on the movement of the human remains and the monument. Questions include:
— “IDOT proposes to move the remaining burials on the project site to Sunset Gardens of Memory in Millstadt, where the previous burials have been moved. What do you think?”
— “How should the moved remains be commemorated?”
Sunset Gardens of Memory is the former Sunset Memorial Gardens. Booker T. Washington Cemetery has been largely abandoned except for periodic cleanups by volunteers.
IDOT is accepting survey responses until August 23 at https://apps.dot.illinois.gov/Checkbox/I64-IL111-Public-Comment.aspx. People can also email questions to [email protected].