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20 Miles by 2020 - Highway 34

Supporters are trying to take advantage of the momentum surrounding a multi-million dollar highway project in west-central Illinois.

The Highway 34 Coalition has been working for decades to expand about 25-miles of the two-lane highway to four-lane between Burlington, Iowa. and Monmouth, Ill.

This is a narrow, winding stretch of highway with few shoulders.  It is lined by heavily-wooded areas and deep ravines.

The effort to expand Highway 34 got a huge boost in 2009 when the state of Illinois included tens of millions of dollars in a capital bill to build a four-lane bypass around Biggsville.

That project is slated for completion in November.

With construction fresh on everyone's minds, supporters have started the "20 Miles By 2020" push.

Credit Illinois Department of Transportation

The Illinois Department of Transportation says the remaining 20 miles of two-lane Highway 34 will cost about $220 million.

Securing that much money will take plenty of lobbying at the state and federal levels.

State Senator John Sullivan (D-Rushville) said it needs to start with the organization, 34 Voices, which traveled to Springfield during the capital bill debate in 2009.

"I believe, in my mind, that there was no doubt they were able to push us over the hump to get the additional funding so that that first phase could be built," said Sullivan.

34 Voices was formed at West Central High School in 2007 following a fatal accident in front of the school during school hours.

It was one of six fatal crashes along that stretch of road from 2003-2012.

Co-Founder Miriam Rutzen said the students at West Central High School knew something had to be done at that time.

"That really sparked a real fear to be honest in the students and the employees of the school district and in the community," said Rutzen.

A group of West Central elementary students tells the crowd at a recent rally why Highway 34 should be four-lane by 2020.

The group has been raising awareness about the highway and lobbying state and federal lawmakers since its formation.

Rutzen said she still feels connected to the group, even after graduating from West Central High School and Harvard University.

She says safety is the biggest need to expand the highway to four lanes.  

The Illinois Department of Transportation reports there were more than 650 accidents on Highway 34 between Burlington and Monmouth from 2003-2012, or about one per week.

Rutzen says there is also an economic benefit to the project that cannot be ignored.

"The bottom line is this is a need.  When it is met, it will help a lot of the other problems that are being created.  Truck traffic will get safer, employment and job opportunities will come in, revenue will come into the community."

Michelle Schnicker stands next to a photo of her husband Douglas during a recent rally for "20 Miles By 2020." Douglas Schnicker was killed in a crash on Highway 34 in February 2013.

Another leader in this effort is Michelle Schnicker of Burlington.

She could be considered a reluctant leader because her involvement follows the death of her husband, Douglas, in February 2013.

Douglas was driving to work on Highway 34 when a semi-truck cross the center line and hit him head on.

"I shut down for a while, to be honest," said Michelle Schnicker.  "I really wanted to not be alive because I wanted to be with my husband.  Just knowing I had two boys that I needed to be there for, honestly, that is where a lot of the strength came from."

Schicker's strength was on display this week as she told her story to more than 100 people during a "20 Miles By 2020" rally at West Central Elementary School.

She says she will not stop until Highway 34 is four-lane throughout Henderson and Warren County.  

She says her effort is a way to make sure her husband is remembered not as a statistic, but as a father, son, brother and friend.

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.