ELWOOD – Safe Roads Illinois – an online-based campaign Elwood launched in December to raise public awareness about the region’s growing truck traffic problem – is one way the village is going to bat for its residents as it seeks reforms it says will bring about safer roadways.
But critics argue Elwood – one of the driving forces more than a decade ago behind the first wave of warehouse development in Will County – is trying to get in front of a self-created problem.
“It’s unfortunate that they have to attack the industry that they so longingly tried to court for years, to bring forward,” said Matt Wells, associate director for the Midwest Truckers Association. “And now they’re trying to demonize what they’ve been able to capitalize on.”
Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes said the village is “proud of the development in the area,” but the local officials in office today are not the same who were there when the development started.
“We’re not the same administration, not the same mayor and trustees, not the same residents,” Hayes said. “Here I am today. I’m the chief public safety official. And we have some serious problems here.”
Hayes pointed to the 20 truck-related deaths in Will County since January 2014, along with 909 truck-related incidents and 156 truck-related injuries, as a need for the village’s campaign.
Village President Bill Offerman did not return multiple calls made Friday and Monday seeking comment on the Safe Roads Illinois campaign. Village Administrator Nick Narducci did not return a phone call Friday seeking comment.
As of Friday morning, the campaign’s petition has garnered 1,183 signatures and 4,438 unique visits to its website – www.SafeRoadsIllinois.com, according to Elwood spokesman Scott Burnham, a senior strategist with the Chicago-based Serafin & Associates.
Burnham said the village of Elwood paid Serafin & Associates $15,000 for the creation of the campaign’s website and video interviews, on top of the $7,500 monthly fee for the firm’s PR services.
The petition calls for elected officials to “make truckers pay for blatant disregard of the law, hold developers accountable for their actions and impacts, coordinate enforcement of truck traffic, and toughen commercial driver licensing, regulations and penalties.”
Hayes, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for tougher commercial driver licensing laws and regulations, said the campaign is calling for higher standards for and ongoing training for the smaller, independent trucking companies.
More also needs to be done in light of the state’s January 2015 decision to close Walter Strawn Drive, a main entrance to CenterPoint Intermodal Center in Elwood, Hayes said.
Referring to two recent incidents in Elwood in which truckers made a wrong turn and drove through the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in attempts to reach the intermodals, Hayes said he hopes the campaign brings attention to the lack of detour signage near the state-closed Walter Strawn Drive.
“What I do notice is that they are confused. They get lost. They’re thinking, ‘Maybe I could turn down here and this would cut through,’ ” Hayes said. “The state closed Walter Strawn. The state should be responsible for putting up the proper signage.”
Elwood is among 26 municipalities in Will County that have warehouse space and/or logistics operations, according to information confirmed by the Will County Center For Economic Development. Many of the trucks that pass through the village are headed to the nearby CenterPoint intermodal facility.
Michael Murphy, chief development officer for CenterPoint, declined last week giving a phone interview but answered questions via email. He said CenterPoint “has been consistent in calling for a regionally sensible and safe long-term traffic solution to deal with truck traffic.”
“This goes beyond the existing short-term closure of Walter Strawn Drive, and includes long-term solutions such as a grade separation at Walter Strawn Drive and Route 53, or potentially a Houbolt Road bridge,” he wrote.
Murphy said CenterPoint, through billboards on interstates and meeting with tenants about preferred truck routes, has encouraged the use of Interstate 55 and Arsenal Road as a primary entrance into the intermodals.
Murphy also noted that during the past 15 years CenterPoint has invested more than $1.5 billion in the Joliet-Elwood intermodal, “resulting in job creation and tax support for the community,” he wrote. He said that included $800 million for the village of Elwood, and included road improvements, support for police and fire services, a water tower and village park.
Hayes said the campaign has not singled out CenterPoint specifically, although the developer remains entangled in the 2013 lawsuit with the village. Case proceedings still are playing out in court.
“Certainly the village is involved in litigation with CenterPoint, but this is a regional issue,” Hayes said. “I think I’ve made that very clear. This growth in Will County is coming at a significant price that is putting the public in peril and jeopardy.”