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Normal council adopts $175M capital projects plan, moves on Gregory Street trail extension

Normal Public Works Director Ryan Otto addresses the Normal Town Council on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.
Michele Steinbacher
Normal Public Works Director Ryan Otto addresses the Normal Town Council on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

Normal’s latest five-year outlook calls for putting $175 million toward hundreds of capital projects — about $18 million more than last year’s plan.

The Normal Town Council adopted the FY23-FY28 Community Investment Plan (CIP) Tuesday night, after hearing a presentation from finance director Andrew Huhn, who described the plan as a way to prioritize the town’s infrastructure and public services.

“We are very proud, in terms that we are in a financial position that we are able to invest these funds in major transportation, facilities, park projects, and the like,” said City Manager Pam Reece.

Nearly half of the CIP — $85 million — focuses on transportation and road projects, noted Huhn.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the council moved into the design phase for one of those capital projects — the Gregory Street extension of Constitution Trail.

Council member Kevin McCarthy was absent from the meeting at Uptown Station.

Trail extension moves into design phase

The council voted to bring on Jacksonville-based Hutchison Engineering, with an $182,000 contract, to design the trail extension. A state grant is covering the majority of that cost.

The new addition will run along the Illinois State University Golf Course — from Adelaide Street to Parkside Road. Set to open in 2025, this will add a major west Normal conduit for walkers and bikers, said Normal Public Works Director Ryan Otto.

On this map, different colored lines mark various Constitution Trail branches in Normal. The orange dotted line shows the planned Gregory Street extension.
McLean County GIS
In this detail from a map of the Constitution Trail, different colored lines mark various branches in Normal. The orange dotted line shows the planned Gregory Street extension.

ISU owns the property, and will provide easements for the new pathway, he said.

The Illinois Department of Transportation awarded Normal a grant in 2020 to cover the entire $1.2 million trail extension.

But in the two years since, costs on just about everything have increased, noted Otto. Back then, the IDOT grant budgeted $168,000 for Phase 1 and Phase 2 design. That falls shy of the $182,000 proposal discussed Tuesday.

So, as part of its vote to work with Hutchison Engineering, the council OK’d the higher amount, and to draw that from its state Motor Fuel Tax (MFT) fund. The state will absorb the original $168,000, while Normal pays the rest.

“We have to upfront the money, and then we get reimbursed by IDOT for design. So, the total cost for design, to the town, is actually the $14,000,” said Otto.

In the 5-1 vote, council member Stan Nord opposed the award, saying he didn’t want the town’s contribution coming from its state MFT funds.

Fellow council members voiced frustration at Nord’s stance, with several explaining the trail is recognized by the state as a legitimate use for the MFT dollars, and that the grant itself is from the state’s transportation department.

Using the MFT funds for the trail is a permissible use, said council member Kathleen Lorenz, who said she'd even looked up the state rules about that.

Council member Scott Preston said given what the million-dollar infrastructure project would do for the Normal community, and how that money is grant-funded, he couldn’t understand why Nord would want to knock it down.

“It’s so backward, I’m having a hard time even comprehending it,” said Preston.

Originally, the town planned to commit20 percent for the project — or roughly $240,000.

But better news arrived: The Illinois Transportation Enhancement Project (ITEP) reimbursement grant promised to cover the entire $1.2 million budget.

Otto said given the design cost increase, he anticipates higher construction costs, too — and that Normal would need to fund that. But until the design process gets under way, it’s impossible to estimate how much more the trail project will cost, he said.

Created in the 1980s,Constitution Trailopened with about four miles of pathways for pedestrians and bicyclists. It now has multiple branches covering nearly 25 miles within Bloomington and Normal, and connects with trails along historic Route 66.

The Gregory Street extension will expand the trail’s collegiate branch and bring access to Normal West Community High School, Parkside Junior High School, Maxwell Park and Champion Fields.

The town of Normal's FY23-FY28 Community Investment Plan can be accessed on its interactive open data portal.
Town of Normal
The town of Normal's FY23-FY28 Community Investment Plan can be accessed on its interactive open data portal.

Transportation, road work projects ahead

The trail extension is just one of the 436 capital projects detailed in the FY23-FY28 Community Investment Plan (CIP). The council adopted the $175 million plan Tuesday on a 5-1 vote, with Nord voting "no."

Huhn explained how Normal assigns projects to one of seven categories, funded from a variety of sources.

"The town is experiencing economic development that's unprecedented," said Huhn, adding that's making more money available for spending, especially in the this upcoming year's budget cycle.

Transportation projects are at the forefront of the latest CIP, said Huhn. Resurfacing project spending is up about 42 percent, added Mayor Chris Koos.

Here is a breakdown of the plan:

  • Transportation: More than $85 million, with nearly half of that, $42 million, for street resurfacing and other road work. It also includes the $27.1 million for the Uptown underpass; and nearly $7 million for bridges and culvert repairs.
  • Other (Equipment): About $31 million covers the town’s equipment and vehicles, including for the Normal police and fire departments. About $6 million goes to Normal’s technology improvements.
  • Water Distribution: More than $21 million for maintaining the town’s water system, including wells and fire hydrants. A large chunk of this is dedicated to water main replacement, nearly $14 million, said Huhn.
  • Sewers: About $17.5 million. 
  • Storm water drainage: More than $4 million to maintain the town’s storm water system. 
  • Facilities: About $9 million, for work on town buildings, including construction of a new Normal fire station.
  • Parks and Recreation: About $5.7 million, including work on park facilities, such as playgrounds, tennis and pickleball courts, pools, and dog parks. 

The CIP is a working document, and does get modified as the year moves along, said Reece. The plan is built on first understanding the previous year’s version — and then factoring in pricing, estimations of work required, and other new information, she said.
The council’s expected to adopt Normal’s next budget in March.

Huhn led a chart-filled presentation, outlining categories and trends of capital investment. He also described how Normal leaders determine what work moves ahead. Some considerations relate to community health and safety, a project's potential savings, and how the idea fits with the town's master plan, he said.

Koos and Lorenz agreed one concern in the months ahead is whether the town will find enough contractors to handle the upcoming work.

An influx of American Rescue Plan Act funding, combined with the backlog of work stalled due to the pandemic, means municipalities and others are competing for workers to handle the projects.

Town’s open data portal gains attention

Huhn said while the CIP information is used as part of administrators and council members' budgeting and financial planning, it’s also available for anyone to access on the town’s GIS-based open data portal.

The Geographic Information Systems (GIS) structure incorporates digital mapping and other data into an interactive online dashboard.

Normal’s technology department, led by Vasu Gadhiraju, launched the portal last year. During Tuesday’s meeting, Huhn reviewed how to navigate the portal, sharing a variety of ways to filter data. Some include by funding source, by geographic areas of Normal, or year of project.

Normal's innovative use of the technology is gaining attention, said Koos. In a recent Harvard University publication, researchers said municipalities should look to Normal's Community Investment Plan, as presented on the open data portal, as a best-practice model for how to make data more accessible to residents.

"That's a pretty strong endorsement," said Koos.

“It’s a huge asset for our residents” with the transparency it provides, added Preston.

Department leaders also benefit from accessing CIP information on the data portal, said Koos, as they can gain a more holistic understanding of how their department projects and goals fit into the CIP, he said.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.