A little more than two years after the town of Normal included a nearly $13 million underpass in its Uptown 2.0 plan based on community feedback, a consultant hired to look at the feasibility is also recommending a wide underpass and park as the safest and best option for accessibility and economic development.
The Uptown Normal Railroad Crossing Alternatives Analysis was unveiled last night and the town will take written comments on its website for another month before deciding whether to seek a more detailed cost estimate. During public comments, resident Bob Broad pointed out some residents have opposed every development plan including the very popular Constitution Trail.
"It's worth reminding ourselves that in virtually every case the naysayers were wrong and that the value to the town and the community of these investments has been enormous so let's keep doing it. Let's build option 4C," he said. His statement was the only public comment of the night to receive applause. Option 4C includes a 20-foot wide underpass for Amtrak passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists with stairs and ramps or elevators on either side of the tracks. It also features a park on the south and east side of the tracks and a reconfigured Gateway Plaza on the north.
Julie Hile, who owns a consulting firm that includes transportation clients but who did not write this report, applauded the idea of putting safety ahead of cost. She pointed to statistics from Operation Lifesavers, an organization that advocates for rail safety. Its website reveals that deaths due to train track trespassing increased 12.8 percent in 2015 from the previous year.
"This would be a very easy decision to make regardless of price the day after a catastrophic injury," she testified. But while she didn't come out in favor of a specific overpass option [there are a few options in the report], Hile said there is agreement among rail experts. "You want to eliminate that crossing. You want to get it up and away from the wild imaginations of pedestrians who will come up with all kinds of crazy reasons to put themselves on railroad track," she offered.
Economic Development Is A Factor
The report from WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff of New York says safety and accessibility were important factors but economic development was also weighed. The underpass is seen as providing a visual connection between the future Normal Public Library south of the tracks and the restaurants and retail to the north.
Laurie Swindler, who ran unsuccessfully for the Normal library board, said the connectivity is important. "When you're in the [future] library you can look through the underpass. It's wide enough so that you can look through and it makes both parts inviting and accessible and safe."
A couple of the ten residents who gave public comment questioned why the town would not consider using nearby street crossings or an at-grade crossing at the same height as the tracks but town officials say Union Pacific and Amtrak won’t allow that option. Resident John Croft suggested putting the underpass recommendation to a referendum even though it is not legally required. "All these expenses are getting difficult and I think you need to be thinking about your taxpayers," he said.
Resident Bob Broad, who testified after Croft, responded to the referendum request. "The larger question of the vision of the town of Normal was just put to a referendum. Chris Koos won that election as mayor and the council members who were elected are all forward-thinking council members who pay attention to analysis and understand the value of investment and don't only understand the value of not spending money, " he replied.
Reporter's Note: Mayoral Challenger Marc Tiritilli has requested a discovery recount of election results which had Mayor Chris Koos winning by 11 votes. Results of the discovery recount could lead to a request for a more costly full recount of balloting.