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After Delays, Town Now Plans For $22.7 Million Uptown Underpass By 2024

rendering of the Uptown Normal underpass
A rendering of the Uptown Normal underpass that was submitted with the grant application in July 2019.

The Normal Town Council held a special work session Monday to discuss progress on the long-planned $22.7 million Uptown Normal underpass project.

Discussions about proposed updates to Uptown Station and solutions for crossing the tracks date back to at least 2012. Director of Public Works Wayne Aldrich on Monday provided the council with updates since the last special work session on the topic was held in 2019. No votes were taken Monday.

During the 2019 session, Aldrich reported a deadline of December 2021 for a crossing of some sort to be built at the station, and estimated construction to be completed as early as 2022. In Monday’s presentation, however, Aldrich cited an updated timeline that provides for a final design completed by September 2022, contract awards by December 2022, and a completed project by September 2024. The new timeline pushes the project back by more than two years.

In November 2015, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) allowed for an extension of the December 2021 deadline for a crossing, as city officials strayed away from a simple pedestrian overpass, deeming an underpass as the most favorable crossing alternative.

Upon the council’s approval to open what Aldrich refers to as “Phase 1” of the project in 2017, the town has worked on collecting the necessary documentation, carrying out alternative analysis, preparing a conceptual design, coordinating with the host railroad, preparing preliminary engineering, completing grant applications and asking for public involvement.

Chris Koos
Cindy Le
Normal Mayor Chris Koos was re-elected in April.

Aldrich on Monday cited an increase in train traffic and data showing freight trains can take between 3.5 and 7 minutes to clear Linden and Broadway. He also said there has been a steady increase in pedestrian and bicycle traffic in the area. The underpass, he said, would provide a “direct connection to the Constitution Trail” and help avoid pedestrian contact with trains that would minimize chances for pedestrian trespassing on the tracks.

In addition to safety benefits, town officials argue the underpass would be an economic development tool and a potential game-changer for Uptown 2.0 south of the tracks. That’s where a new library and more housing could be built. Town staff say developers may now be “deterred by the current lack of direct pedestrian access between the two parts of Uptown.”

The public, according to Aldrich, heavily supports the proposal. In an April 2017 meeting, 29 commenters were in favor of the public underpass with open public space, five were opposed and three spoke in support of an overpass instead.

As the project nears the end of Phase I, the town has worked with the railroad to determine the box culvert method of construction for the project. That method is a conventional type of construction that is the quickest of those considered and will come with a moderate price tag. The method also will allow for at least one of the tracks to remain open at all times, resulting in minimal disruption to train traffic.

Aldrich reported that preliminary engineering plans were submitted on April 1. He suspects the project will be ready to move to Phase II by November 2021 where final designs, construction documents and contractor procurement will take place.

Project funding

At Monday’s meeting when the council was given the floor for questions, one topic came up again and again: funding.

As reported in the 2019 session, Aldrich said the project has a budget of $22.69 million. Of this, $16 million is slated to come from federal funds: $13 million from a BUILD grant awarded in 2019 and the remaining $3 million from Section 130 railroad crossing safety funding approved by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). State funds will supplement another $5 million through funding from the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) initiative to Rebuild Illinois.

After these funds, the Town of Normal will be responsible for $1.69 million.

Some on the council expressed concerns.

Council member Stan Nord said he “sees it as something similar to the Coliseum (in downtown Bloomington) where our constituents said no and (I think it) would be disingenuous and not look very good on elected representatives to go a different route.”

Mayor Chris Koos pushed backed on Nord’s comment. He criticized Nord’s recent informal polling (as seen on Facebook) on public sentiment toward the underpass.

Stan Nord
Normal Town Council member Stan Nord.

“In your narrative when you’re asking for public input, it was fraught with misinformation and bad numbers,” Koos said to Nord.

Council member Kathleen Lorenz suggested the funds may be better used elsewhere and expressed the need for more constant communication and updates to the council.

“I have a hard time getting excited about spending $22 million on how to cross a railroad track,” she said.

Council member Chemberly Cummings spoke in support of the project, stressing how big a deal it is for Normal to have been selected for the competitive BUILD grant.

“The underpass has become a symbol. An underpass is a way to connect and to remove barriers and blockages. I believe if we are able to successfully move forward with more support, we will finally move away from the barriers and blockages that are hindering us from continuing to move forward in the Town of Normal and do the things that make us more diverse, progressive and growing as a community,” she said.

Final comments before the special session adjourned also came in support of the project from the president of McLean County Building Trades, who said that it would be “beneficial for all trades and provide hundreds of good-paying construction jobs.”

Koos said discussion on the project will continue.

Other council business

— Koos said, based on the return to Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan, that Monday’s Town Council meeting will be the last held over Zoom.

— The council discussed the recycling dropbox program and the agenda item proposing for its continuation based on cost-sharing with the City of Bloomington and McLean County. The council voted to approve, with Nord voicing the only opposition. The plan says survey data from the Ecology Action Center will determine proportional cost-sharing in the future and the council will continue to monitor the program. The plan allows for any of the three parties to discontinue their share of the program cost in the future.

— Lorenz voiced concern from Uptown merchants over a new business’ use of neon signage, suggesting that it “does not follow the look of the neighborhood.” She urged the council to revisit sign ordinances and stressed the need to tighten them.

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