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Normal asks federal government for more underpass money

Farr Associates/Town of Normal
A rendering of a possible configuration of the underpass in Uptown Normal.

The estimated price of the Uptown Underpass Project in Normal could go up by 25% because of inflation.

The Town of Normal said it wants $6 million more from the federal government to build the long-planned underpass linking the areas north and south of the train tracks with a below-grade path that is not hindered by freight and passenger trains. City Manager Pam Reece said fallout from the pandemic means the chance to get the money is good.

"Some of the projects that (had) been awarded grants back in the 2019 program year did not move forward. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) made us aware that some of those funds were available," said Reece.

The potential increase would bring the project total cost to $30 million.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and FRA has already awarded the town $13 million for the project through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program. And the town has pledged over a period of years to seek other funding to limit the size of the local share of the cost.

There was a contingency cushion built into the first budget for the underpass.

"We budgeted for 1.5% inflation and included 20% contingency. Our request for additional funding through FRA’s 2019 BUILD grant program provides an increased cushion and helps us plan accordingly, given these extremely high inflationary factors of late," said Reece.

Inflation is at the highest rate in four decades. Government reports indicate the rate in May was 8.6% year over year. A central Illinois investment expert from Busey Bank earlier this week said he sees no sign inflation will abate soon.

If the feds don't give the town the money, Reece said they'll cope.

"If we don't receive additional funding we will get to the point of what's called value engineering," said Reece.

That means they'll redesign it to cost less and it may be a little less nice; design work continues.

"We hit the 60% design milestone a couple months ago. I believe the plans are currently under review by the Union Pacific Railroad. Our next milestone will be the 90% design stage which we hope will be by the end of the year," said Reece, adding 60% and 90% are typical thresholds for engineers.

All the project stakeholders review plans at those benchmarks, with each stage triggering a deeper look at the plans, she said.

The town has considered the underpass for about 13 years. Supporters note it will help rail passengers and the public avoid delays when trains prevent passage, and improve safety for children going to the Children's Discovery Museum. Some also have claimed the connection to Uptown South will be an aid to development and growth both north and south of the tracks. Critics have questioned whether the value is worth the high cost.

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