By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
COLUMBIA — City officials plan to move forward this year on a long-stalled effort to build an interchange to help develop more than 2,000 acres of prime land along Interstate 255 just east of the Mississippi River.
The project has been in limbo for years, delayed by both political and financial considerations, but the outcome may be different this time, since a more regional approach is being used, says Columbia’s community and economic development director.
“There’s been interest in that development since at least the 1970s, and it’s not surprising because it’s the last big area of developable land relatively close in to St. Louis,” Paul Ellis said.
Plans for an interchange were developed about a decade ago, but were placed on the shelf during the recession. The site is Ramsey Road and I-255, but the project is commonly known as the Fish Lake Interchange. It is part of what Columbia calls the I-255 Development District, or the American Bottom area, entirely within Columbia’s limits. There is quite a bit of unincorporated land between the district and neighboring Dupo to the north that could be annexed.
“We will probably, depending on the developer and the property owners, annex more land, but we will work cooperatively with Dupo on where the boundaries are,” Ellis said.
The Fish Lake Interchange plans were approved in 2007 by the Illinois Department of Transportation while Mary Lamie was still regional director over IDOT District 8. Lamie is now executive director of the St. Louis Freight District, and Ellis is now a member of the freight district’s board.
Years ago, Columbia and Dupo had many fruitless meetings trying to reach various intergovernmental agreements. Dupo was pursuing development of its own Discovery Business Park and was hopeful of building an interchange at 255 and Davis Street Ferry Road — less than two miles from where Columbia wants to see its own interchange.
Eventually, the recession came along and both efforts were sidelined.
“It was not our finest moment,” Ellis says. “But we laid the groundwork and it’s a no brainer that people would be looking to develop this property. Things are different now and I’m relatively confident we can have forward movement on it.”
To that end, Ellis and others are enlisting a number of supporters.
“We met with St. Clair County officials last week and we’re meeting again (soon) with Dupo officials. We’ve got a really good dialogue going now with Dupo, which hasn’t always been the case,” he said in late December.
Much of the engineering work and archaeological and environmental studies are already done, he said.
The biggest obstacle is money. An interchange that would have cost only $17 million in 2007 is now estimated at $27 million.
“We’re hoping as we get all this new funding for transportation projects at the federal, state and regional levels that there is a way to make that interchange a reality,” he said.
Ellis said the project could be a key benefit for Union Pacific’s Dupo Yard, a large intermodal and rail operation. He has a letter of support for the Fish Lake Interchange from railroad officials.
Union Pacific would like to expand that operation to keep up with competition, he said.
“There are opportunities for that to grow significantly. Having an interchange, maybe more than one, to serve the growth of that freight nexus, really makes a lot of sense,” Ellis said. “Stuff goes from rail to truck to barge, and the stuff that goes by truck has to get onto the interstate. The current yard is a little locked up in that the current road network isn’t the best for moving intermodal freight,” he said.
The vision for the Columbia project has changed in the past decade. Originally, it was looked upon as a regional warehouse and distribution hub.
“The economy has changed; investment patterns have changed. We’ve talked to developers, and we’ve talked to the community and there seems to be energy behind some more unique uses,” Ellis said.
Among those, he said, might be an entertainment facility or a regional recreation center, with a retail and office component.
Ellis sees the site as less of a regional distribution hub akin to the Gateway Commerce Center in Edwardsville and Pontoon Beach.
“I think we’re sort of maxing out on that in this area, and others are equipped to handle it,” he said. “I think we are thinking right now, without having finalized anything, that office uses would be more of a given.”
The office and retail development around Earth City, Mo., would be the best, closest example to what is likely, Ellis said.
“But this is still very open-ended. We’ve got the support of our council. We think we’ve got the support of the other communities. We’re talking to the property owners, and we’re talking to a variety of developers. But the package is far from complete. However, we know the recession is over because my phone is starting to ring again and I know the demand is there,” he said.
Ellis declined to discuss the property owners involved, other than to say “there’s not many of them,” and most are represented by individual or family farms.
As part of lining up an alliance, Ellis has letters of support for Columbia’s plan from Congressman Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, and from state Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton.
Ironically, Costello’s father, former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, was supportive of seeing an overpass in Dupo, not Columbia.
“We’ve also asked for priority consideration from East-West Gateway (Council of Governments) and from IDOT,” Ellis said. “We’ve met with Leadership Council (of Southwestern Illinois). We’ve met with Rich Sauget — both of them (the mayor of Sauget and his businessman father). I don’t think there’s anyone in a leadership capacity who doesn’t know Columbia is wanting to do this.”
Ellis said he is “pretty well convinced if somebody wrote a check tomorrow we could have the interchange underway in three years.” But more practically it’s probably a three- to five-year development plan, he said.
The current Fish Lake overpass is familiar to southbound drivers along Interstate 255. Just as they pass Illinois Route 3’s cutoff to Columbia, the overpass looms straight ahead, about halfway between the cutoff and the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.
Columbia has also suggested to IDOT another use for the interchange — that being as a connection point for the Gateway Connector, a road long sought by the state as an east-west route from near Scott Air Force Base to the Mississippi River. The connector has long been mired in political and financial challenges, but if it were ever built, having it connect up at a new interchange would take the alignment further to the west and away from other development now under way in Columbia, Ellis said.