The first train made its way to Lane (Rochelle) on Jan. 15, 1854. It was probably Jan. 16 that the first person complained about having to wait at the tracks. From the beginning, Rochelle has had a love-hate relationship with the railroad. Train service helped put Rochelle on the map, it also made it difficult to get around the community.
As train and automobile traffic increased, Rochelle residents found themselves more and more frequently sitting in traffic watching the trains roll by. It was in 1927 that the community began the first efforts to find a way around the railroad. Talk bounced back and forth between an underpass and an overpass. There was considerable agreement on two things, Rochelle needed a way to bypass the railroad tracks and nobody wanted to pay for it. The city council was unable to find a common ground. The trains kept rolling and the cars kept sitting.
The year was 1968, the community was once again driving (or not driving) toward a referendum on an overpass in Rochelle. The Rochelle Jaycees completed an in-depth study of local train traffic. In a 24-hour study it was found that there were 90 train-related stoppages, 3.5 hours of traffic delay and 160 blocks or 20 miles of traffic back-up.
The citizens wanted a resolution to the problem. Elected officials approached the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) requesting assistance with a two-lane overpass from Washington Street to 4th Avenue. And then the troubles began. The ICC began researching the need based on traffic flow and anticipated future traffic projections. The community wanted a two-lane overpass and the ICC wanted a four-lane overpass. The ICC also wanted to widen 7th Street to four lanes through Rochelle.
With the price greatly increased and fears of how the town would look with the addition of two lanes of highway through the center the referendum went before the voters. It was not even close. The vote was 819 in favor of the overpass and 1,701 opposed. The trains kept rolling and the cars sitting.
Time passed and the problem continued. It was 1975 before the overpass issue was again at the forefront of local concerns. Times had changed. The State of Illinois was deep in discussion about a highway that would take traffic around Rochelle. The highways would eventually be named Illinois 39. Rochelle elected officials once again approached the ICC for assistance constructing a two-lane overpass on 7th Street. With the immanent construction of a major highway around town, the Rochelle contingent argued that two lanes would be more than adequate. The ICC once again reviewed traffic flows and anticipated traffic flows and once again insisted that any overpass would have to be four lanes. The cost rose from $2.6 million to $4.7 million. Rochelle would be required to pay $1.7 million. The ICC also required an answer within the next six months.
The overpass referendum of 1976 was probably the most hotly-debated in the history of Rochelle. The city scheduled a referendum and all sides started their debates. Arguments ranged from an overpass to an underpass. When accurate costs were unavailable, guestimates seemed sufficient. The concern over a four-lane through town was resurrected. Promises were made that the state would not require a four-lane through town but demanded a four-lane overpass. Many citizens did not trust the state. Why a four-lane overpass for four blocks emptying into a two-lane road? The city council checked into financing. If Rochelle was required to fund $1.7 million it would be bonded to its limit, the city would not be able to borrow money for any other projects for the next few years.
March of 1976 saw another vote on a referendum to build an overpass in Rochelle. The vote was razor close, 1,320 people voted yes for the overpass, 1,325 voted no. There were lawsuits and challenges. Votes were recounted and contested. At one time 11 no votes were eliminated and 11 yes votes were eliminated. When the dust settled the overpass was defeated by three votes.
One would have suspected that the issue was decided for the foreseeable future, but things got stranger and stranger. It was in July of 1976 that Mayor Bill Cipolla called a special council meeting. Four months after the overpass referendum failed, federal and state officials were approaching the city council with a joint venture to construct a two-lane overpass in Rochelle. With the new proposal the city would be required to pay $650,000 of the total cost of the overpass. The council voted three for and two against the deal. Cipolla, Jim McCaslin and Tex Dickenson voted yes, Clarence Rasmussen and Page Weeks voted no. What had changed is only speculation. Rochelle had fought for years for a two-lane overpass and failed at every turn. From a cost of $1.6 million to $650,000. Cipolla gave the credit to Bob Hultgren. Bob had approached U.S. Representative John B. Anderson and State Senator John Roe and enlisted their support. With Anderson and Roe on board, things quickly fell in place. The impossible became not only possible but inevitable.
Preparation took a while but ground breaking occurred on April 2, 1980 and the grand opening of the overpass was on Sept. 15, 1982.
Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.