ST. LOUIS – One southern Illinois mayor is leading a push to build a highway that could connect the St. Louis region to many rural parts of the state.
Will Stephens, the mayor of Murphysboro, Illinois, first introduced such a proposal through the Four County Highway Coalition in 2018. Half a decade later, the proposal is taking on new life.
Current plans call for a four-lane rural expressway through Monroe, Randolph, Perry, and Jackson counties in Illinois.
According to a map from the coalition, highway development would begin around Waterloo, divert from a current path that runs through the heart of Sparta, and end around Murphysboro. The route would be known as the Southwest Illinois Connector.
“The impact of the Southwest Connector project for Southern Illinois, the Metro East and the City of St. Louis would be enormous,” said Stephens. “The Southwest Connector would cut travel time for Southern Illinoisans going to St. Louis for sporting events and healthcare, and create a safer route for all.”
An expressway could also provide more direct access points to the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds, Southern Illinois University and a few small airports.
“Southern Illinois residents appreciate their rural lifestyle, but deserve faster, safer access to the world-class amenities that St. Louis offers,” said Stephens.
The proposal has built some recent momentum behind endorsements from dozens of elected officials, local governments, labor unions and economic development organizations. Some of his latest pillars of support come from outside the state, specifically in the City of St. Louis.
The St. Louis Regional Freightway recently sent a letter of recommendation to Stephens over the Southwest Illinois Connector, and the mayor’s office sent some similar documentation earlier this week in support of the plan.
“It doesn’t commit them to any spending,” said Stephens on the letters. “It’s just an expression of, “We think southern Illinois having a faster route to get to St. Louis would be a good thing.'”
FOX 2 has reached out to the St. Louis Mayor’s Office for comment.
According to Stephens, the plan also has backing from Illinois U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. Illinois U.S. Congresswoman Nikki Budzinski, who represents part of the Metro East, also favors the proposal.
“With resources from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law headed out to projects across the country, I’m working to make sure communities in Central and Southern Illinois feel the benefits,” said Rep. Budzinski in a statement to FOX 2. “I was glad to submit a letter of support to the Four-County Highway Coalition’s Southwest Connector, and I’ll keep advocating for projects that support our region’s economy.”
Funding has been a challenge in recent years for a project that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The coalition has applied for federal grants available through the Biden administration’s $1.4 trillion infrastructure bill passed in November 2021. Stephens says the initial applications have come up short, likely due to the need for some state funds to cover costs.
“The scenario we’re hoping for is 80% federal funding and 20% funding from the state,” said Stephens. “We’re currently lobbying the state of Illinois to make sure we secure the funding from the state side. Once we do that, it’ll make our federal applications score better.
Stephens expects that federal funding will be available for the next two or three years through the infrastructure bill.
If the plan moves forward, Stephens says the Southwest Illinois Connector could create thousands of jobs in construction and attract more manufacturing sector jobs to the state long-term.