"34 Voices" Hopes to Take a Victory Lap

Aug 13, 2019
Originally published on August 14, 2019 10:58 am

Much of Route 34 is currently a two-lane road between Monmouth, IL and Burlington, IA. There is no median and not much of a shoulder in many spots. Students in Henderson County in western Illinois are pushing for the state to provide funding to make the road a four-lane highway, a lobbying effort that started before they were born.

“We need persistent people continuing to push for these projects and push for improvement,” said Allie Strack, who will be a freshman this fall at West Central High School in Biggsville. 

Strack is a member of the student group 34 Voices, which is making sure the region’s voices are heard by the state’s decision-makers. Some members of the group testified this spring during an Illinois Senate hearing in Peoria, teaching lawmakers about the issue and laying out why they feel the state should fund the project.

Members of the group also talked to TSPR this spring. They shared stories of frightening encounters on the road and explained why a four-lane highway would benefit people from throughout the region and even around the nation.

  • Allie Strack: “We were going into Burlington and there was someone on the side of the road and their tire exploded while they were driving and they had to keep going because there wasn’t anywhere to pull off yet.”
  • Keigan Thacker: “I have gotten in a wreck on that road. We hit a deer on the way home from a basketball game.  The deer flew off of our car and went into the other lane and another driver hit it. And it was scary. We pulled off onto the grass and as we were standing there semis were flying by before the cops got there.”
  • Kaiden Droste: “Semi drivers that have to drive across the country use Highway 34. It’s going to benefit everyone in the long run if this gets done how we want it to be done. This 20 miles can help an insane amount of people.”  
  • Sarahi Seabury: “The thing about 34 Voices is that it’s not only helping the community, it’s helping future generations that are going to be driving on the road. Yes, there will be wrecks with a four-lane but not nearly as much as with a two-lane.”

Strack, Thacker, Droste, and Seabury will all be freshmen this fall at West Central.  They will be following in the footsteps of students such as Megan Buster, who graduated from high school this spring and planned to attend Southeastern Community College in West Burlington this fall.

“I will stay in touch with the students entering high school. And there are things you can do even if you’re not in this (34 Voices),” said Buster.

“We have a Facebook page that you could go to. You could call and write legislators, asking them to please support this.”

Buster said she was part of the group that attended the Senate hearing during the spring.

“When they got to us, one of the senators actually said that they had the most calls and letters and stuff from 34 Voices. And they had everybody there (for Route 34) stand and it was pretty much the entire room. They actually applauded us and took us more seriously because a lot of people were concerned about it,” said Buster.

“So it does really help.”

The Driving Force Behind 34 Voices

Michele Schnicker is a retired banker from Burlington who calls herself a full-time lobbyist on behalf of upgrading Route 34. However, any changes will come too late for her family. 

“February 11 of 2013, I lost my husband. My late husband died on that highway,” she said, speaking about Doug Schnicker. 

“My husband did the best job that he could to try to get his vehicle off the road but the semi had come clear across and there was nowhere for him to go.”

Schnicker said she made a vow to herself and her family to work to ensure that no other families suffered a similar loss.  As part of fulfilling that vow, Schnicker helped revitalize the 34 Voices group. It had fallen by the wayside after several years of lobbying by students who graduated and moved on without seeing much done to improve the highway.

Schnicker said 34 Voices provides students with the added benefit of building their skill sets. She said the youngsters have learned valuable lessons about working with state legislators.

“A lot of people are intimidated by legislators, but they’re human beings just like you and I. They get up every day. They brush their teeth. They get dressed,” she said

“I guess that’s one of my goals is just to let the students know that legislators are normal human beings just like you and I. And legislators want to be known that way as well.”

Schnicker said it is important to stay in front of legislators and keep pushing your project.  She said if you let it slide, others will step right in, looking for money for something else.

Schnicker said the amount of truck traffic on Route 34 has exploded and she believes it will continue to do so.  She called it a dangerous stretch of road. She said a four-lane highway would be safer for truck drivers as well as those who live in the region.

The lobbying for the Route 34 project has taken on renewed urgency now that the state has a capital bill for the first time in years.  Supporters said they want to make sure the project is not overlooked again.

But there is no word yet on whether the Route 34 project made the grade with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), which will decide which road projects get the green light for funding.

The students, Schnicker, and others said that until that money comes through, they will continue lobbying and promoting the many reasons why they believe improvements should be made to Route 34.

More about Route 34 Issues

Construction crews completed a 4.7 mile, four-lane bypass around West Central High School in 2014. Supporters said this has increased safety --  especially for students -- and has reduced traffic crashes.

They would now like two other parts of the road converted into a four-lane highway.  One portion stretches 8.1 miles west from the Biggsville Bypass to Carman Road near the Mississippi River. It would then connect to the four-lane Route 34 in Iowa that stretches from Burlington to Des Moines.

The other portion stretches 11.2 miles east from the Biggsville Bypass to Route 67 in Monmouth.  Route 34 is already four lanes from Monmouth to Galesburg, where it connects with Interstate 74.

Another advocacy group, the Highway 34 Coalition, said eight people have been killed on the two-lane portions of Route 34 since 2013 and around 90 others have been injured.  They said these were all head-on collisions, mostly on days with clear driving conditions.

Macomb Mayor Mike Inman counts himself among supporters of the road-widening project, even though Route 34 doesn’t go through his community. In fact, Macomb is about 30 miles south of the road.

“One of our largest manufacturers here in town, Pella Corporation, all of their materials come from Pella, Iowa across that road to support this plant here and their finished product goes back to Pella, Iowa for distribution across those roads,” Inman said.       

He said a four-lane Highway 34 would also make it safer for college students from southeast Iowa to travel to and from Western Illinois University in Macomb.

Steven Stransky, a Regional Planner with the Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission in West Burlington, Iowa, concurred with Inman.  He said Route 34 in western Illinois is an essential link for the entire region.

“This is increasingly becoming an alternate route to I-80 for truck traffic. That affects not only western Illinois but also the people over in Iowa,” he said.

Stransky is optimistic the road will be widened sometime soon.  He feels Illinois lawmakers have been receptive to the project. He said the road is a U.S. highway so it is possible some federal money will be made available for the project but he said it will be funded predominantly with state money. Stransky said he previously worked for former State Senator Gary Forby (D-Benton) so he is familiar with the legislative process in Illinois.  

Stransky said Route 34 receives more comments on IDOT pages than any other project.

“We don’t have the population here that Chicago and other parts of Illinois have. But what we have is an extremely passionate group of citizens here,” Stransky said, adding that he hoped the project is not done in piecemeal fashion -- he said the entire stretch should be widened to four lanes.

“The entire length of it is important. There’s not one specific segment that’s more important than another,” Stransky said.

“Let’s just get this project done.”

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