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One redesign proposal is putting busy Vernon Avenue on a 'road diet'

Normal intends to redesign the east-west Vernon Avenue corridor, and on Tuesday nearly 100 people came to city hall to learn about the plans.

The main idea floated was to put Vernon on a road diet. That's the term for reducing a four-lane road to two or three lanes.

Work on the nearly two-mile road would stretch east from Beaufort Street to Towanda Avenue. Along the way, the road passes busy intersections such as Linden Street and Grandview Drive, and popular crosswalks connecting sections of the Constitution Trail.

It also passes the Illinois Art Station and Colene Hoose Elementary School.

One option is to keep the four-lane road in its current design. But several alternatives were discussed Tuesday with different configurations, including all or some of the following: bike lanes, wider sidewalks to accommodate bicyclists, parking, and a variety of crosswalk upgrades.

A roundabout at the Linden or Grandview intersections also is a possibility.

For Erin Ripley-Gataric, any of the options is preferable to the current layout.

This illustration shows the two lanes, plus bicycle lanes option.
This illustration shows the two lanes, plus bicycle lanes option.
This illustration shows the two lanes, plus bike lanes and parking, option.
This illustration shows the two lanes, plus bike lanes and parking, option.
This illustration shows the three lanes, plus bike lanes, option.
This illustration shows the three lanes, plus bike lanes, option.
This illustration shows the three lanes, plus a shared use path on the north side.
This illustration shows the three lanes, plus a shared use path on the north side.

A resident of Vernon Avenue, she blames the four-lane configuration for excessive speeding from drivers, and creating an unforgiving atmosphere for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“The only bad decision is to do nothing,” said Ripley-Gataric, adding “I think this project is going to impact a ton of people” and it's work that's needed.

The two-hour meeting at Uptown Station included a presentation from Springfield-based Hanson Engineers’ Cindy Loos, who outlined possible redesigns, and staff-led breakout sessions about the various proposals.

Those include two or three lanes, with bike lanes; two lanes, with bike lanes and parking; or two lanes with a shared use path (wider sidewalk). Posters showing all four alternates were displayed at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The goal of the town is to do this within the existing right of way,” said Loos. “We’re not trying to get closer to your homes,” she said.

In addition, Loos described three options to improve crosswalk safety. Those could be one of the following, or a combination of: flashing beacon, raising the crosswalk 6 inches, and creating a refuge “island” midway across the street.

Loos said engineers and town staff are collecting feedback until July 7 on how to move forward with the street’s redesign, adding Tuesday’s presentation will be available on the town’s website.

In August, Hanson will update the community on the feedback. Then the plan will begin to take shape.

Normal Public Works Director Ryan Otto has said the pavement is aging, and before putting money into redoing the road, the town wants to research how to modernize and improve the roadway.

It’s much too early in the process to know the scope, cost or timeline of the Vernon Avenue project, said Otto. But he anticipates it’ll be done in phases and could take up to a decade, depending on a variety of factors.

Funding could come from a variety of sources, including state motor fuel tax money, grants, and amounts budgeted by the town.

Road diet concept growing trend

Loos told the crowd gathered Tuesday in council chambers the Vernon Avenue project designers have several key objectives.

 These illustrations show different possible designs for crosswalks on Vernon Avenue.
These illustration show possible crosswalk designs for Vernon Avenue.

Those include lowering vehicle speeds, increasing driver awareness of intersections and crosswalks, and creating a safe pathway for all users of the road — motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.

Traffic studies show the road handles between 6,000 and 8,000 vehicles daily. The road diet proposed is a great plan for roadways that accommodate up to 14,000 vehicles daily, said Loos.

For the crosswalks in particular, options that could make motorists slow down, and take notice could create a safer environment.

“The visibility is a big deal,” said Loos.

Stakeholders consider possibilities

Hannah Johnson, who heads the Illinois Art Station, said she liked the idea of raised crosswalks.

She also discussed with her group — at the table focused on turning the stretch from Beaufort to Linden into a three-lane road — the possibility of incorporating public art as a way to draw attention to the crosswalks.

Unit 5 spokesperson Dayna Brown said the school district has been working with Normal, and had seen the presentation previously. But she and other staff attended Tuesday’s meeting to listen to the community, in particular about the area surrounding Colene Hoose school.

“Anytime you are around a school, you should drive carefully. But people are very passionate about student safety” and that's important to Unit 5 as well, said Brown.

Noah Tang, who lives in Bloomington but frequently rides the Constitution Trail to Uptown Normal, said he wants to see improvements to the trail’s crosswalk. “That’s one of the most unsafe parts of the trail,” he said.

He also likes the road diet concept, in general. The founder of the Bloomington Revivalists, a group focused on urban planning, Tang said road diets are gaining popularity across the nation and globally.

“For the most part, everyone around me (tonight) agreed a road diet was the right way to go,” he said.

Normal Town Planner Mercy Davison called Tuesday’s event a real success.

“This was a tremendous turnout,” she said. “A lot of people live in this neighborhood and they want it safer for everyone using the road,” she said.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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