The Town of Normal’s original grant application for the Uptown underpass included a long list of benefits—including enhanced safety for pedestrians, cyclists, and even children’s museum visitors—and also a willingness to put millions in local funding toward the project.
The grant application, submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in July, asked for $16 million in federal funds for the project. That would've been combined with $7.3 million in town funds and $1.2 million from the state for a total project cost of $24.6 million, according to a copy of the application provided to WGLT on Thursday.
Ultimately, the application earned the town $13 million—$3 million less than requested—from the DOT’s BUILD grant program, officials announced Wednesday. Town officials said they’ll rework the project and seek other funding sources—possibly more money from the state—to close the gap. They stressed that the amount of local funding is very much undecided.
The goal is to use as little in town funds as possible, Koos said.
“We’ve got some work to do before we can really lay out a tight package of what we’re gonna do, how we’re gonna do it, and what the timeline would be,” Koos said.
Speaking Thursday at a press conference at Uptown Station, state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, said there might be additional state funding available, possibly through the capital bill.
“There are other avenues out there, and we’ll obviously be pursuing those other avenues,” Brady said.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, who helped secure the grant, said it was a “big deal.” He called the underpass an “innovative project” that town officials had fought hard to fund.
“It’s a good problem to have right now,” Davis said of funding the rest of the project. “There are a lot of communities that submitted (DOT grant) applications that I represent. The excitement we feel today is now disappointment in their areas because they weren’t awarded. They would’ve been glad to take a part of what they applied for.
"(Town officials) are willing to figure out a way to get things done, because that’s what local governments do every single day.”
The grant application shows town officials hoped to complete final design on the underpass in 2020, with construction taking place from March 2021 to December 2022.
The grant application opens with a letter from Koos, selling DOT on the project. He said the existing railroad tracks act as a “physical and psychological barrier” between Uptown Normal’s north and south sides. Around 1,850 pedestrians and cyclists cross the tracks each day but are now rerouted to Linden or Broadway for an at-grade crossing.
These safety issues directly impact Amtrak passengers, according to the application. The underpass project would also provide safe, direct access to a second passenger boarding platform at Uptown Station.
“Due to the lack of a grade separation, passenger trains are primarily routed to the station side with unpredictable use of the second platform. When passenger trains are routed to the second platform, there is minimal notice for passengers to change sides, leading to confusion and people rushing across the tracks to catch their train,” officials wrote.
Town officials also reiterated why they think an underpass is a better option than an overpass.
“Federal funding was previously secured to build an overpass for Amtrak passengers at this location, but the town made the courageous decision in 2014 to work with project partners to seek a better solution,” Koos said.
Officials wrote that “the overpass would serve rail passengers, but would not serve general pedestrian and bicycle traffic, missing a key opportunity to improve safety for those groups.” An underpass “will make rail travel more accessible for all members of the community, especially those with limited mobility,” they wrote.
In the short term, officials said Thursday that underpass construction would create 400 jobs. In its application, the town said it planned to negotiate a project labor agreement (PLA) with building trades to help prevent delays due to labor issues.
“When you put people to work, it’s income. It’s health insurance. It’s their retirement plans,” said local union leader John Penn. “It means a lot. Jobs are jobs, and that means a good living for our people.”
The grant application spelled out the potential economic impact of opening up access to Uptown South, also known as Uptown 2.0. Portions of Uptown South have been reserved for a new public library and redevelopment into a public park, officials said.
“The potential for retail and urban-style housing (in Uptown South) is strong,” officials wrote. “However, developers may be deterred by the current lack of direct pedestrian access between the two parts of Uptown.”
The application also said there would be benefits for the Children’s Discovery Museum, one of the earliest anchors in the redeveloped Uptown. It noted that the museum currently has “extremely limited outdoor space” and “the only access to the larger space in Uptown South for outdoor activities requires museum staff to walk classes of young children across the tracks at Linden Street.”
“The town is also working with the museum to create an educational STEAM exhibit during construction to teach children about architecture, engineering, and construction,” officials wrote.
A rendering of the underpass submitted with the grant application shows an active, interactive playscape on the north plaza, between the Children’s Discovery Museum and Uptown Station. The south plaza would be a more passive space, with flexible seating and a performance area.
It’s unclear how exactly the project will change, given the smaller-than-requested $13 million award, and what that will mean for the town’s financial commitment. The original grant application called for a 65%-35% split between the federal government and state and local funding.
“There’s some value-engineering that we would have to do with the project. We’ll be working with WSP, our engineering partner on this, to come up with those ideas,” Koos said. “But we can’t change it too much. Because some of the elements that we promised in our grant—we can’t change the scope of the project.”
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