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Normal Town Council Votes to Accept Grant Money for Underpass Project

Farr Associates/Town of Normal
The Uptown Normal underpass project, with an estimated cost of about $23 million, would be financed with $16 million in federal grant money and about $5 million in state Rebuild Illinois funding. The town would chip in around $1.7 million.

After hearing from former town leaders and other citizens, the Normal Town Council voted 6-1 Monday night to accept federal and state grant funding that will finance more than 90% of the cost of the Uptown underpass project.

Council member Stan Nord was the lone "no" vote.

During public comments, former City Manager Mark Peterson discussed past town projects that “almost didn’t happen,” including the Constitution Trail.

“The easy vote is no. There is no risk, no accountability and no investment. This is an opportunity for you (the council) to exercise vision, leadership and courage in taking the hard path,” he said.

Paul Harmon, a former mayor, agreed, saying "controversy is nothing new. It is up to the town council to ignore the chatter and make the hard decisions on what is best for the community.”

Harmon cited other successful projects such as Rivian, the Fairview Park water park, the Linden Street Amphitheater and the Towanda Avenue Bridge project, adding “the nay-sayers have always been loud” and urged the council — which met in person above Uptown Station — that denying the grant funding slotted to cover 93% of the underpass project would be a disappointment.

The project, with an estimated cost of about $23 million, would be financed with $16 million in federal grant money and about $5 million in state Rebuild Illinois funding. The town would chip in around $1.7 million.

Other commenters cited investment back into the community, opportunity for economic development, development on the other side of the railroad tracks and town beautification as reasons to pursue the project.

Jonathan Seiden, a Normal resident, said he is pleased to see the town address a major safety issue.

“Our community sees 750 roadway injuries and 12 fatalities a year and 90% of those are cyclists or pedestrians,” he said. “The railroad crossing at this location is one of the most dense locations of hazard for our residents and the underpass is a robust solution to this. I am happy to put my tax dollars back into Normal and this is cause for celebration.”

Seiden also praised the council for being able to secure grants and for bringing the Union Pacific Railroad and the State of Illinois in on the project.

Former council member Cheyrl Gaines also voiced her support.

“All of these people are interested in this, they trust the Town of Normal. They are willing to put their stamp of approval and money on the line. Please give this your yes vote, bring it home and make Normal proud again. If we don’t accept this, Normal is never going to get any grant money from anybody ever again,” she said.

The final public commenter, another Normal resident, spoke in opposition of the project claiming the grant money is still from taxpayers and that it, “sacrifices taxpayers for the council’s glamorous projects.” The commenter also referred to the project’s approval as “writing a blank check” and that he has never felt unsafe at the crossing and does not see the need for the underpass.

Nord, a longtime critic of the project, voiced his concerns that the costs of Phase Two and construction are not yet present in the town budget.

In response, City Manager Pam Reece said, “Funds are not included in the (2020-2021) adopted budget for Phase Two or construction. We have asked the council tonight to accept the grant and execute that budget adjustment as indicated in the council packet for Phases Two and Three. Once it is approved, staff will amend the budget and come back to council with the amended budget.”

Karyn Smith speaking at candidate forum
Jeff Smudde
"I don’t see how it is fiscally responsible to walk away from this since 93% is granted to us because of all of the efforts that have been made to get us to this stage," said Town Council member Karyn Smith.

Council Member Karyn Smith added that “it is difficult to present a budget beyond one year and the allocation of this would go into the 2022-2023 fiscal year. I don’t see how it is fiscally responsible to walk away from this since 93% is granted to us because of all of the efforts that have been made to get us to this stage.”

“The train has left the station with $20 million and to back it up now would be a huge stain on our community,” said council member Kathleen Lorenz.

Another council member, Chemberly Cummings, said not accepting the grant funding "would be a slap in our representatives’ faces for their work to bring this grant money to our community.”

“If the money doesn’t come back here, it will go to some other city. We want our tax dollars to come right back here to our town. Not only did our local representatives support us in obtaining these grants, but others did as well, ” she said.

Council Member Kevin McCarthy praised staff and representatives for coming together in a bipartisan way to support growth in the community. “When we first voted on this, I said I would only support it only if we got substantial external funding and this staff has gotten us 93%, so I said I would support it and I am supporting it,” he said.

Lorenz proposed an amendment to the vote to establish a ceiling on the local match and commit to citizen engagement.

Reece responded that such an amendment was not relevant to the vote at hand and assured her that her concerns have been heard by staff and will be considered. Mayor Chris Koos denied the move, saying it appeared to be an effort to postpone approval of the grant acceptance that was clearly coming. Lorenz withdrew the amendment proposal.

In other business:

  • The council unanimously approved a resolution to award the bid for the White Oak Road and Hovey Avenue Water Main Extension Projects to Stark Excavating at a cost of $1.6 million, plus up to a $15,000 bonus for early completion. The project will stop homes and businesses in the Prairie Gardens Subdivision and along West College Avenue from losing service if there is a main shutdown.
  • Reece said staff is working on a parking study scheduled to be presented at the council's next meeting on Aug. 2.
  • Reece introduced a resolution funding the Overhead Sewer Cost Share Grant Program to assist property owners affected by recent flooding. The program was previously allowed to go into a lapse due to lack of use.
  • A motion was passed to approve reappointments to the Children’s Discovery Museum Foundation Board.
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Samira Kassem is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the station in 2021 after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University, where she was editor in chief of The Argus.
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