St. Charles Mayor Don DeWitte believes a recent petition to stop the construction of the Red Gate Bridge was signed by more than 100 residents only because of "dishonest" information on the forms. But one member of the group believes the mayor's criticism delves into a personal character assault.
A community group called the Concerned Coalition for Sensible Spending is going door-to-door with the petition in hopes of collecting 2,900 signatures by July 5. Former and current city council candidate Vanessa Bell-LaSota has so far served as a spokeswoman for the group.
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The petition contains five reasons the city shouldn't build the $30 million bridge at Red Gate Road near Route 31. One, the group believes traffic on Main Street (Route 64) already has lessened without a Red Gate Bridge. Two, the group believes the city doesn't have the money needed to build the bridge. Three, the petition says the opening of the nearby Stearns Road Bridge over the Fox River lessens or eliminates the need for the bridge. Four, the group says there is no money in the city budget to maintain the bridge. Five, the group believes the city should use the more than $6 million already collected for the bridge, via a separate tax levy, for other needs.
On Bell-LaSota's Facebook page, she suggests using the levy as a downtown revitalization fund to draw foot traffic and sales tax dollars to the city.
"All we are asking is that our council members halt the building of the bridge for a couple of years to explore ideas on how we can make St. Charles a great visitor experience," Bell-LaSota states on her Facebook page.
DeWitte let Bell-LaSota know he believes those are all twisted statements in a letter he recently sent to her.
"I find the representations you have made in this petition process misleading and fictional in content, but most importantly, disingenuous and dishonest, in your attempt to promote your personal political agenda," DeWitte wrote.
In rebuttal, DeWitte said the city has the financing for the bridge secured. Despite budget problems on the state level, DeWitte said Gov. Pat Quinn has signed a budget with the state portion of the bridge funds intact. Worries about losing the local share of state income tax money also never materialized, DeWitte wrote. He added that using the bridge money for other purposes now would mean betraying residents who've paid the tax levy for years believing the money would be spent on the bridge. Bell-LaSota maintains that the city doesn't have the money until the cash appears in city coffers.
Even more problematic than repurposing the funds, DeWitte said in an interview, is the $5 million already spent on acquiring land to build the bridge. Not building the bridge would mean flushing that money down the toilet, DeWitte said.
DeWitte said he's a fan of the Stearns Road Bridge taking some of the heavy truck traffic out of the city, but the Red Gate Bridge will be a local crossing for commuter use over the river. DeWitte said evidence of the need for another local commuter crossing is the fact that more people still use the city's Prairie Street Bridge than the Stearns Road Bridge to get across the Fox River. Prairie Street has fewer lanes and a lower speed limit than Stearns Road.
DeWitte said the city must prepare for population and traffic congestion to grow with a view 20 years in the future. At that point, building a bridge like Red Gate will be much more expensive than it is now. DeWitte also hasn't ruled out reviving the idea for a new fire station near the bridge when population growth revives.
"We don't believe the economy will stay stagnant forever," DeWitte said. "There could continue to be significant growth on the north side of St. Charles on both sides of the river. In the meantime, the Fox River and Countryside Fire/Rescue District may very well be users of the Red Gate Bridge. They are responsible for areas right down Route 31."
DeWitte said he fully expects the city council will continue casting votes to begin construction on the bridge.
The war of words between DeWitte and Bell-LaSota shows no signs of stopping until then. Bell-LaSota already has responded to the mayor with her letter, attaching documentation she believes supports the group's views. In the letter, she tells DeWitte the spirit of his criticism is not appreciated. She goes as far as to label the personal references in DeWitte's letter as an "assault" on her "intentions and character."
Bell-LaSota's direct response to DeWitte also invokes the support of the Village of Wayne. She references documents that say Red Gate Bridge, by emptying onto Army Trail Road, puts too much traffic in Wayne's historic districts along the route. Wayne officials have long been critics of the bridge project.