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Normal Town Council approves underpass design contract

City Engineer Ryan Otto (near) and Inspections head Greg Troemel brief the Normal Town Council.
Charlie Schlenker
City Engineer Ryan Otto, in front, and inspections head Greg Troemel brief the Normal Town Council Monday night.

The Normal Town Council has taken the next step toward building the estimated $23 million underpass project linking Uptown and Uptown South via a below-grade crossing of the Amtrak and Union Pacific tracks.

The contract approved Monday night is for Phase II and III of engineering and design that will cost up to just under $3.3 million.

The town’s obligation has been offset by myriad funding sources. The design is a larger number than the town’s overall commitment, but "we will recover those through grant funding, “ said council member Karyn Smith, adding, “I’m very pleased to see this project go from the someday to the somehow.”

Such a project comes along once a decade, added council member Kathleen Lorenz, who pushed for public outreach at earlier stages of the project. Even though the firm doing the design is required to consult the public, Lorenz repeated the call Monday evening.

“I think the staff should even enhance that,” she said.

Mayor Chris Koos pushed back against the need for that concern.

“It is important to reiterate that the staff has always done what you have asked for. There has been a plethora of public hearings on major projects,” said Koos.

Town staff said the skeleton of the box culvert under the tracks is pretty well set, but they want public input on the design and landscaping.

Council member Stan Nord, a longtime opponent of the project, voted against approving the contract, saying he’s concerned the town will have to bear any increases in construction costs since the original pre-pandemic estimates for materials price hikes were made before the current supply chain shortages.

“Construction costs have increased by 50% in some cases, so we are making the decision based on old data,” said Nord

Nord was repeatedly ruled out of order as Koos noted the issue was not the broader context of the underpass project, but the specific engineering design contract. Nord’s motion to table the contract failed for want of a second.

“To go forward when we don’t have information is an ignorant vote,” said Nord.

Other council members noted the process is the same as for many other large projects.

“You never get to the cost until you go out for bid. This is a standard approach. It’s very big dollars and we will be watching carefully, but this is the normal orderly process of how a project evolves,” said council member Kevin McCarthy.

City Engineer Ryan Otto also said the town has planned for such contingencies with flexibility in the budget, will be careful of changing estimates during the design phase and could alter the design to stay within the projected costs.

“We are past the go, no-go question at this point, but we will keep this train on the track and on budget,” said Lorenz.

Construction could begin next spring.

Tax levy

The council also authorized town staff to prepare a 2021 property tax levy ordinance of $13.381 million. Assuming roughly 2.5% growth in property values, that $326,000 increase from the previous year would leave the tax rate the same as last year.

Nord was, again, the lone dissenting vote.

“I would like to see us not ask for any more money than we asked for last year,” he said, claiming that with American Rescue Plan money, marijuana tax revenue, increases in motor fuel tax money, and growth at Rivian, the town has a surplus.

But Rivian’s tax abatements remain in effect for at least the next year, motor fuel tax money must be used on transportation projects, and as City Manager Pam Reece noted, the federal government specifically bars municipalities from using that money to lower property taxes.

The town intends to use new money generated by increases in property values to support increased and mandated police and fire pension contributions.

In 2019, Lorenz voted with Nord at this stage of the annual process to ask for preparation of a levy in the same amount as the previous year.

She recanted Monday.

“Two years ago, it was a bad idea to just flatten out the levy in a unilateral move without totally understanding what you are doing with that suggestion and it’s a bad idea today,” said Lorenz. “Two years ago, I got suckered… and I went along with your idea, a three-minute decision that I regret to this day.”

State law requires municipalities to approve tax levies in a two-step process, with authorization to draft a levy ordinance and then later a separate decision to approve the levy itself.

In other business, the council:

— Unanimously, and without discussion, approved the latest amended plan for Rivian that contemplates a 600,000-square-foot expansion of the production facility at the electric vehicle plant.
— Heard a presentation on a revised Americans with Disabilities Act compliance plan for the town.

Earlier, the Liquor Commission approved liquor licenses for the Normal Theater and for Fiala Brothers microbrewery and pub in Uptown.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.