By Ray Downs
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By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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By Allison Babka
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Cars and trucks line the northbound lanes of Route 203 from the Interstate 55-70 exit ramp to the entrance of Gateway International Raceway, where Illinois state troopers are directing traffic. Beyond the main gate, windshields glint in a field that has been turned into an impromptu parking lot. A horde of young people, many of them shirtless, march across the sunbaked parking area, their ranks narrowing as they cross a footbridge that spans the Cahokia Canal. These heavy-metal fans are among the thousands filling the infield of the racetrack for an earsplitting concert by Metallica. Normally, spectators who flock here are treated to another form of noise -- the sound of NASCAR competition, which the raceway's boosters say revved up the region's economic engine by about $70 million last year.
Dover Downs Entertainment Co., the track's owner, wants to improve on its past performance by increasing seating capacity at the raceway from 60,000 to more than 100,000 within the next year. The expansion is tied to the track's efforts to lure the Winston Cup, a prestigious NASCAR racing series. To fulfill NASCAR's requirements, the raceway, which now has more than 17,000 parking spaces, will need to add 12,250 more. In May, Gateway International submitted a proposal to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking permission to construct nine new gravel parking lots on approximately 150 acres of land. Construction of one of the proposed lots would have involved filling in more than 11 acres of wetlands.
After environmentalists attacked the idea, the track downscaled its request. But the revised plan still calls for a four-lane access road on the south end of the raceway. If built, the road would destroy about a half-acre of wetlands and affect Lansdowne Ditch, a drainage system that protects the northern part of East St. Louis from flooding. The corps says it is determining whether to allow the racetrack to proceed with the project. Included in the discussions with the raceway is another option -- supported by environmentalists -- to redevelop an abandoned industrial site for parking.
The Southwestern Illinois Development Authority (SWIDA), which backs the pending proposal, prizes the raceway revenue over the wetlands losses.
"Five years ago, it was an old broken-down amateur racetrack that had been sitting around for 30 years and had gone bankrupt several times," says Alan Ortbals, the executive director of SWIDA. "You had a junkyard next door. You had some abandoned housing. You had some old pigpens. Today, you've got Gateway International Raceway. On the other hand, you've got some wetlands that people have been throwing tires and refrigerators and washing machines in for the last 50 years. God only knows what are in those lands which are wet. So what you're giving up are some old swamps that have been severely damaged over a long period of time."
It's not quite that simple, however. A historical map published by the Corps shows that part of the raceway property sits in a lakebed that was under water as recently as 1874. As it now stands, drainage ditches surround the site on three sides. This suggests that further development of the immediate area could cause stormwaters to overflow the low levees that border the drainage ditches.
Drainage problems in the American Bottoms, as the area is known, are the result of stormwaters' flowing down from the bluffs to the east and getting trapped in the basin below, which was once a part of the Mississippi River. As upland cities such as Edwardsville and Collinsville have grown, the runoff has increased because new developments have consumed land that would otherwise absorb rainfall.
The stormwaters wend their way down from the Illinois prairie onto the floodplain. In the late afternoon, a breeze rustles the leaves in a grove of cottonwoods and a heron caws as it takes flight over Judy's Branch, where the creek joins the Cahokia Canal south of Illinois Route 162. From here, the canal flows south and west, skirting Horseshoe Lake. On its way to the Mississippi River, it passes directly to the north of Gateway International Raceway. Lansdowne Ditch, which borders the southern and western sides of the raceway, flows into the canal. Together, the canal and the ditch act as the first line of defense in preventing flooding in the northern part of East St. Louis. So do the remaining wetlands.
Environmentalist Kathy Andria, a spokesman for the American Bottoms Conservancy Alliance, believes that advocates of the raceway expansion are at best misinformed. "They just don't understand the function of wetlands, the fact that wetlands act as sponges and that they are important in flood control," Andria says. "The reason that the American Bottoms floods is because it was the bottom of the river -- it is wetlands. Once you compact wetlands, (they) lose their ability to hold water. Not only are you taking away the sponge that soaks up that water and releases it slowly to the waterways, you're adding extra runoff. (If) you continue to put more parking lots up, it's a recipe for disaster. The area has been declared a federal disaster area in '93, '94, '95 and '96. There have been billions of dollars spent on flood disaster, and they're trying to ask for some wetlands to be destroyed for one race a year. It makes absolutely no sense."