Collision Course

Gateway International Raceway is speeding to expand parking. But environmentalists are waving a red flag.

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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."

Despite regular flooding, there has been little cooperation among the local drainage districts set up to deal with the problem, and only a handful of cities on the East Side have stormwater ordinances. Moreover, recent attempts to establish a regional stormwater agency have failed repeatedly in the Illinois Legislature. Opposition to the concept of regional flood control comes from upland farmers, homebuilders and real-estate agents, who see it as an unnecessary expense. This leaves the Metro East Sanitary District alone to deal with maintaining the canals and ditches that drain 66,000 acres of flood-prone land stretching from Hartford to Dupo. The problem spills down from one political jurisdiction to the next, but the district can't stem the tide because its taxing authority extends only to Illinois Route 157, near the foot of the bluffs.

The absence of regulatory unity can be catastrophic when large volumes of water are involved. In 1995, floodwaters caused about 1,000 Caseyville residents to flee their homes. Fairmount Park racetrack was shut down for five days, and part of Interstate 64 closed. Crews hastily built a levee to stop Interstate 55-70 from going under. Neighborhoods in East St. Louis were inundated. Two years ago, stormwaters mixed with raw sewage forced hundreds of residents of the John DeShields public-housing complex in East St. Louis to evacuate.

The dilemma is hardly new. By the early 20th century, leaders in government and industry recognized the need for flood control and formed the East Side Sanitary and Levee District. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on levees and canals that never really solved the problem. These past flood-control measures depended heavily on pumping stations, floodgates, stream channelization and other feats of engineering. The Corps' current policy takes a decidedly different tack by relying on the East Side's remaining wetlands to retain floodwaters. The ecological approach has the support of the Metro East Stormwater Coordinating Committee, an ad hoc group of federal, state and local officials. But SWIDA's unqualified endorsement of the raceway expansion appears to be somewhat at odds with the Corps' overall program, in which $40 million has been spent over the past decade to remove debris from the East Side drainage system.

The raceway is taking a more cautious public stance. "It's very complicated," says Brian Ulione, the general manager. "But we're working with the Corps of Engineers and have done everything that they have requested of us and will continue to do that. Right now we're talking about .7 acres of wetlands in a revised permit. The original permit application called for 11 acres." The road that the raceway wants to build on the south end of the track would accommodate shuttle buses carrying MetroLink riders from the new light-rail station on Exchange Avenue in East St. Louis, says Ulione. The raceway is exploring other options, too, he says, including using the former National Stockyards site for parking.

In 1998, SWIDA attempted to solve the raceway's parking problem by using eminent domain to take nearby property owned by National City Environmental Inc., parent company of St. Louis Auto Shredder. The legality of that effort is now being weighed by the Illinois Supreme Court. A ruling is expected later this year.

One alternative, backed by both environmentalists and the Corps, would be to turn the former Hunter Packing Co. site into a raceway parking lot. This would require the demolition of about a dozen abandoned industrial buildings and improvement of First Street in the Goose Hill neighborhood of East St. Louis. The plan would still require the construction of an access road across St. Louis Auto Shredder's property. The Corps has received a brownfield grant of more than $150,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the site.

Just how the development issue will eventually pan out remains as murky as the waters of the Cahokia Canal and Lansdowne Ditch.

The ditch stretches eastward, toward Indian Lake, a wetland where the original streambed still meanders. Here, an old golf course, recently acquired as mitigation land by the Illinois Department of Transportation, is returning to its natural state. The flat expanse looks like an African savannah. Nearby, along the low levee that borders the ditch, grass grows high. Almost everything is green along the levee, except for white specks of Queen Anne's lace and the brilliance of a great egret as it lands in the branch of a dead tree. In the background, a motel sign rises next to Collinsville Road, and the Gateway Arch can be seen in the distance. A turtle pops its head out of the canal waters, displaying bright-orange markings on its face. They are the same color as the flowering trumpet vine, the same color a red-winged blackbird flashes in flight. And for a moment, the world is irrepressibly in sync.

Public comments are being accepted through July 25 on Gateway International Raceway's revised permit. Send commment to:
Susan Horneman
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
1222 Spruce St.
St. Louis, MO 63103-2833

To view the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' public notice concerning the raceway expansion, click below.

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