Highway 34 Delays Spur Student Action
by Andy Drea
U.S. Highway 34 between Monmouth and Burlington, Iowa is unique for many reasons. It happens to be the only stretch of Highway 34 in Illinois that is two lane. At one point, it also runs alongside West Central High School, so it is traveled by high school students every day. With a large amount of traffic, especially from inexperienced teenage drivers, and only two lanes, it should be no surprise that another reason for it’s uniqueness is the volume of accidents or “close-shaves” the road sees on a daily basis.
“Car wrecks happen almost daily on that road,” said Monmouth College freshman Lauren Gerst, who attended West Central High School. “It’s really bad.” Because of these issues, the Illinois Department of Transportation has committed itself to improving the road. However, problems with consruction have pushed parts of the project back.“I’m not surprised,” said Gerst, who has been interested in the highway’s issues since May 2007 when she was sitting in her Spanish class and saw a head-on collision between a semi-trailer truck and a Chevy Suburban right in front of her school. “It was an ‘enough’s-enough’ kind of thing,” Gerst said. Over the summer after the accident, she and a few other people discussed organizing an extracurricular group at school. When they returned for the fall, they organized the group: 34 Voices.
In the later two years of her high school career, Gerst gave speeches in Burlington about the road. She and a few other students lobbied in Springfield to Senators and Representatives for money for the road, which found it’s way in to last year’s capital bill. The group even discussed the matter with Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-MN). Now, though Gerst and many of the group’s founding members have graduated and the group has been on hold as of late.
“They haven’t been active recently,” said West Central Superintendent Ralph Grimm. “There’s no reason to be active.” The hold up in the road’s construction, according to Grimm, is the lack of the money allocated for the project from the State of Illinois, which was a part of 2009’s Capital Bill. The money would be generated by selling capital bonds. “Every delay that occurs in selling those bonds and making that money available delays construction and continues to put students and staff at risk,” said Grimm. “It’s simply a matter of funding.”
But once progress picks up again, Grimm believes the students will “stand ready to mobilize again.” Already in the group’s short history at the high school, they have organized letter writing campaigns and compiled and delivered petitions.
“That’s the next step we’re kind of aiming toward,” said Gerst. “I worked on Highway 34. I lived on Highway 34. I went to school on Highway 34. I couldn’t just avoid it. They can’t ignore us forever.”Until the project moves forward, the school district still worries about the volume of vehicles and the speed at which the travel as they pass the school. “We have a signific ant number of trucks that go by there every day,” said Grimm. “We’ve been extremely lucky. An accident can happen at any time.”