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Uptown Underpass Under Discussion

Normal Public Works Director Wayne Aldrich said there is still a long complex road ahead before an underpass could connect Uptown and Uptown South.

During a Normal Town Council work session Monday night, Aldrich noted there is a December 2021 Illinois Commerce Commission deadline to provide a crossing either above or below the current grade.

"One of our first responses is to go back to them and see if they'll give us more money as well as can you extend the time frame," said Aldrich.

Aldrich said the underpass could be done in mid-2022, though multiple state and federal agencies and railroads are involved, each with their own rules and priorities.

Aldrich said the town will have to fill the gap between state and federal grants and the $22.6 million estimated project cost. That difference is currently about $9 million.

"The town will explore all funding options including additional grants and capital funding," said City Manager Pam Reece.

picture of a man addressing the Normal Council.
Credit Charlie Schlenker / WGLT
Laborers Home Development Corporation Marketing Director Tim Ryan said the underpass might make possible an affordable housing development south of the train tracks in Uptown that would be funded by the Laborers union.

In acknowledging the long history of the issue dating back to 2012, council member Kathleen Lorenz said "You might say the train has left the station" on the question whether to build an underpass.

Lorenz said she has been hesitant about the project for years. But she acknowledged the council voted in 2017 to approve phase one of the project and to wait on other funding, such as that big, $13 million federal grant recently announced.

Lorenz also used another metaphor to help the community understand how far it has come on the project.

"Like a wedding we have walked down the aisle. We are at the altar. And we have even opened our first wedding present, and it was $13 million," said Lorenz.

Public comment on the proposal was heartfelt and mixed.

Former council member Sonja Reece urged current council members to accept the grant and move ahead with the project.

“I’m counting on each of seven of you to not let this opportunity slip through our hands. It’s not going to come our way again,” said Reece.

Resident of Normal Tim Ryan is also a member of Laborers Local 362 and said the project is important economic development and a creator of jobs.

“We have been looking for an affordable housing development," said Ryan, who is also marketing director for the Laborers' Home Development Corporation in Springfield. "This (south of the train tracks) is a good spot to build, but not without easy access to uptown."

Former mayoral candidate Marc Tiritilli tried to inject a note of caution into consideration of the project and the grant.

"There is no mandate to do anything. We can keep things as they are," he said.

Tiritilli said the Union Pacific railroad strongly encourages municipalities to build overpasses because of safety and cost. Tiritilli said the town has until 2026 to do this project, based on the timeline to spend the federal grant. He also said the town has to spend money first and then go to the federal government and get the money. He said timing is an issue.

Much of that is not on point.

Aldrich said the Illinois Commerce Commission deadline to provide a crossing either above or below grade is late 2021. Aldrich noted past federal practice is that the town pays for project expenses on a monthly basis, sends an invoice to the federal government, and gets a check the next month. Aldrich noted Union Pacific is well aware of the project and agreed in a memorandum of understanding to the town’s pursuit of an underpass, negating the safety argument.

John Weaver of Normal told the council he was there to speak out for his grandchildren.

"I don't think this is increasing my tax burden. I think this is optimizing my tax burden."

“The last I heard, the federal government is $23 trillion in debt. The State of Illinois is gonna put in money. Guess what? The state of Illinois is deeply in debt … I want a future for my grandchildren, not a future to be mortgaged,” said Weaver. “If the feds, the state, and the town had cash in the bank to pay for an underpass I would say Hallelujah. But they don’t."

Patrick Dullard is a Normal resident and president of Friends of the Constitution Trail. Dullard argued for recapturing tax money for the area through the grant.

“Bloomington and Normal are tax creditors. We send out more tax dollars than we receive. I don’t think this is increasing my tax burden. I think this is optimizing my tax burden,” said Dullard.

And Reagan Rinchiuso framed the issue as one of safety. Rinchiuso noted bicyclists on the Constitution Trail now have to ride on the train-boarding platform then take an extremely sharp turn at Linden. She says pedestrians are often in danger of being struck, and she said she knew of a woman who broke her clavicle in a mishap there.

“Often there are children in the vicinity (of the Children’s Discovery Museum) that might be crossing the tracks. It’s only a question of time before something happens,” said Rinchiuso.

Town staff and former council member Jeff Fritzen also said having safer pedestrian and bike access to Uptown South would encourage further development in that area.

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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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