A 'growing concern': One call to IDOT relieves Thomasboro worries about tall grass obscuring traffic

Illinois Department of Transportation wants to see some of the right-of-way between Church Street and U.S. 45 in Thomasboro (shown) become a habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. This shows she right-of-way looking north from the intersection of West Clark Street and U.S. 45

THOMASBORO — Concerns in Thomasboro about reduced visibility along U.S. 45 due to overgrown vegetation in the median and near intersections have been addressed by the Illinois Department of Transportation, village Trustee Tony Grilo said.

There were concerns last year about IDOT not keeping up with mowing on U.S. 45 near Thomasboro, and this year, the median “started getting a little bit taller,” Grilo said.

The village didn’t ask IDOT to improve its mowing last year, but this year it did.

“We called them, and they showed up the next day and mowed it,” Grilo said.

IDOT also sprayed the grass, so it “hasn’t grown up recently,” Grilo said. “We’ll see if it starts getting out of hand, but I think they’ve done a good job of managing it since then.”

While IDOT has limited its mowing statewide in recent years to increase habitat areas for pollinators – an effort referred to as Operation Habitat – it has not changed its mowing practices for vision clearance and safety, said Stephanie Dobbs, IDOT’S roadside statewide maintenance manager.

The areas of concern in Thomasboro should have been mowed, Dobbs said, adding she was unsure why they hadn’t been. Scott Hall, IDOT’s roadside manager for District 5, which covers Thomasboro, could not be reached by for comment by press time.

Mowing for safety, Dobbs explained, means IDOT mows 15 feet along the edge of all state roads two to three times a season. This provides a safe place for people to pull over if their car becomes disabled, she said.

“The 15 feet is not magic. That’s just how wide our mowers are,” Dobbs said.

Mowing for vision clearance, Dobbs said, involves mowing vision clearance triangles at intersections, commercial entrances, railroad tracks and turnarounds so motorists have a clear view of traffic when they pull up. Dobbs said to contact IDOT if there are safety or visibility concerns.  

While some areas are mowed wider in the final fall mowing to prevent snow drifting or drainage problems or to control invasive or noxious weeds, one of the goals of Operation Habitat’s is to mow no more than one-third of roadside vegetation in any given year and leave the rest standing, Dobbs said.

The standing vegetation helps provide food and shelter for insects native to Illinois, including those listed or proposed to be listed as endangered species such as the rusty patched bumblebee and the monarch butterfly, according to an Operation Habitat handout.

If a species is listed as endangered, it could slow down maintenance and construction activities on rights-of-way, Dobbs said.

“When there is an endangered species, that opens up all kinds of reviews that we have to do before we can do a project,” she explained. “We can still do construction; it’s just going to take us a lot longer to get all of the approvals through the Federal Highway (Administration) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to prove that we’re not…making the species more endangered.”

IDOT’s “largest land value (for habitat)…at this time is the interstate because it’s fenced and doesn’t get mowed by private property owners,” Dobbs said. “Our biggest struggle is with land that’s not” fenced.

Wide, unfenced state rights-of-way are “where we’re trying to reach out to farmers or landowners…and we ask them not to mow that,” Dobbs said. Some of those areas are found along U.S. 45 and south of Champaign on Illinois 130, she said.

Areas IDOT is not focused on turning into habitat include rights-of-way in front of cemeteries or homes.

“That’s not where we’re trying to make habitat grow,” Dobbs said.

Dobbs said IDOT recognizes the agriculture industry has constraints when it comes to mowing, like leases between farmers and landowners that require them to mow along roadsides.

“Some of those (leases) have been in place for years and may be still be signed for a few more years, and we recognize that” Dobbs said.

If people must mow, IDOT recommends mowing before May 1, between July 1 and Aug. 15, or after Halloween. Those are “the least-damaging” times to mow, Dobbs said.

IDOT also recommends farmers mow with their smallest mower and to mow one strip along their crops.

Mitigation is also an option.

“If you feel like you have to mow here, maybe you can put some habitat in your grass waterway, for example,” Dobbs suggested.

Once farmers “understand the issue, they’re usually really good,” Dobbs said.

In Manteno, village officials agreed to turn several acres of floodplain into habitat so they could continue to mow their interchange, Dobbs said.

Dobbs said mitigation also has been discussed in Thomasboro, where the village had been mowing the state right-of-way between Church Street and U.S. 45 primarily due to concerns about appearance, though there also were the concerns about safety at intersections. The mitigation talks are ongoing.  

Concerns about weeds and invasive species spreading into farm fields also have been raised.

“We do have weeds,” Dobbs said. “We’re working to better manage those.”  

For instance, in some areas this year, one side of the interstate will be mowed out more to help control woody vegetation and weeds.

At Thomasboro’s village board meeting in May, IDOT’s Hall also addressed concerns about invasive species.

“Properly managed and taken care of, (the rights-of-way) do not get overgrown and the native seeds will take over and shade out all the invasives,” Hall told the board.

One sign that Operation Habitat appears to be working is that milkweed is at its maximum density in many areas, Dobbs said. Milkweed is the sole food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars.