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Major Transformation of Western Avenue Begins This Spring

Tory Dahlhoff / WCBU

When Peoria resident Zaxton Johnson heard the city will begin road construction this spring in front of their home on South Western Avenue, he was quick to name his top repair priority.

“A lot of potholes,” said Johnson. “If you ain't paying attention you can hit them and bust your tire...and that can cause an accident right there.”

“With the potholes and these lights being fixed, I think this would be a lot safer road for the walking pedestrians that got to cross along this road every day,” said Shad Timmit, another resident living in the one-mile section of Western Avenue from Adams to Howett that’s included in the project.

City engineer Bill Lewis said the construction plan will go far beyond pothole repairs.

“You’ll see a major transformation here where the roadway will go from these existing wide four lanes down to a three-lane roadway with new curb and gutters, sidewalks and complete street elements.”

Those other elements include bike lanes, permeable pavers, street lights, greenspace, and retaining walls and fences along the new-and-improved right-of-way.

Credit Tory Dahlhoff / WCBU

These community-friendly features of the Western Avenue project stem from the “complete streets” policy adopted by the City of Peoria in 2015.

According to Smart Growth America, “complete streets” policies direct city planners and engineers to prioritize transportation safety, accessibility and mobility for more people in a neighborhood. This generally means slowing the speeds of motor vehicles and encouraging more and safer use of the right-of-way by bikers, walkers, and those using assistive devices.

In Peoria’s case, Lewis said the complete streets approach also plays a role in mitigating the city’s decades-old combined sewage overflow issue. 

“Anytime we can put some permeable pavers in the roadway...it makes it nice looking, but it also helps us with our CSO overflows and limiting the amount of water that's getting into our combined sewer system,” said Lewis.

Like any public infrastructure, complete street projects come at a cost. In the case of Western Avenue, that’s $12.6 million that is funded by a combination of local, state and federal dollars. IDOT has awarded a contract for that work to R.A. Cullinan and Sons.

But according to transportation consultant Mark Fenton during a city-hosted webinar last December, that initial price tag and ongoing infrastructure investment is necessary for the city’s future viability.

“Peoria can’t afford not to do complete streets," he said. "People are deciding whether to live there or not and businesses are deciding whether to build there or not...and complete streets are going to be one of the strongest assets you can bring to those conversations.”

Fenton also noted the need for cities to pay particular attention to street improvements in areas of historic disinvestment where Black and low-income residents have been disadvantaged by racist 20th century development practices like redlining.

“Western was a primary business corridor. And because the city, quite frankly, neglected that area, businesses decided to leave,” said Denise Moore, Peoria’s 1st District council member.

“The infrastructure in this district has been so bad for so long,” she said.

Moore said the road construction project is a major component of the economic development effort underway on the Southside and the improvements could encourage more businesses and jobs to locate there.

“Economic development is going to be the key to bring this community, and especially the Southside, out of the poverty that we’re in.”

“What else it's going to do is just raise the quality of pride for people that live on the Southside...having a street that really is nice,” said Marth Ross, president of the Southside Community United for Change, a coalition of Southside neighborhood associations.

“You know, some people are saying, ‘Well I’ll believe it when I see it’...but It feels good to see something happen, it's just sorry that it takes so long.”

City officials said it will take until the fall of 2022 before the project is completed. In the meantime, residents can look forward to what a complete street might mean for them.

“It will be alot better place for kids and anybody that lives on Western and got to cross and travel up Western to get back and forth to work,” said Timmit. “So you know, it’s all for the better.”

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Tory Dahlhoff is a freelance reporter based at WCBU. He's also the host of the food and farming podcast Food Trek.