By Anna Lothson
Oak Park officials hope a "shovel-ready" project that extends the success seen on gentrified South Marion Street will catch the eyes of those at the U.S. Department of Transportation who recently announced $474 million in the latest round of federal grants.
The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, commonly known as TIGER, grants are aimed at aiding communities in completing projects that help create economic competitiveness, create and preserve jobs, increase transportation choice and access to transportation services, improve efficiency, are sustainable and enhance livability, among other qualities.
Although this is Oak Park's third bid requesting federal funds for this specific project, the last two attempts being unsuccessful, Rob Cole, assistant village manager, said the village's proposal may have "a leg up on other communities" because of the project's readiness plus proof of past success.
Cole points specifically to the redevelopment of Marion Street, noting that the new project could grow infrastructure investments north and south of the already developed area using the TIGER grant. Cole said the village has already seen a 5-1 return on its investment in terms of what was spent on the Marion Street project and what the village has gained in private investment in return.
The project that Oak Park is proposing is called the Inner-Ring Renaissance: A Model for America, and seeks $14.48 million for a $20.9 million project. The application specifies the funding will be used to expand the purpose of work already done. The concept of Oak Park's Greater Downtown Area Plan targets "transit-oriented and complete street public infrastructure investments."
According to the application: "The primary project objective is to realize a compelling, economically vibrant, livable and compact downtown center that leverages the intrinsic value of existing public and private infrastructure to support federal livability principles through a combination of investment strategies that provide more transportation choices, promote equitable, affordable housing and enhance economic competitiveness."
Based on feedback from previous TIGER grant applications, Cole said he believes Oak Park has aligned its proposal well with what decision-makers seek. Federal officials said they are seeking an "aggressive timeline" for announcing selected projects, and the "readiness" factor in Oak Park's proposal makes it more doable than in the past.
Oak Park had previously pushed through projects to better situate the village to receive federal funding, but it didn't yield results. This time around, Oak Park has evidence to back up the project, Cole said. South Marion is highlighted as one of two massive projects completed in Oak Park since 2005.
The South Marion $5.4 million project involved brick street pavers, bluestone sidewalk and 4,000 pieces of granite curbs, gutters, crosswalks and planters, replacing the asphalt and concrete of the old street. It also called for updating inefficient streetlights and added pedestrian-friendly areas. Construction included replacement of aging water and sewer lines beneath the pavement.
The investments expected in the Inner-Ring Renaissance project include replacing deteriorated underground water and sewer infrastructure, reconstructing streets and streetscapes, expanding sidewalks and pedestrian areas, increasing bicycle parking, improving intersection crossings, enhancing pedestrian-level lighting, adding public sidewalk benches, plaza spaces and landscaped sidewalk areas, and improving multimodal station access.
The application says the $20.9 million project will be worth $26.2 million after bringing in private investments. It's also expected to leverage $4.24 million in energy savings. Overall, the project has the potential to increase travel efficiency in the area, linking both South and North Marion streets to Oak Park's larger downtown and helping people navigate more smoothly — both from a pedestrian and motorist standpoint, according to the application.
"Oak Park sits in a unique position benefitting from embedded assets, including central location advantage and enviable access to myriad transportation options," the application reads. "In turn, Oak Park is an attractive location for investment consideration."
In terms of project readiness, Oak Park's application contains an environmental survey indicating that the proposed work would be completed by the end of March 2014. This would allow all contracts to be awarded by the end of September this year and for work to begin soon after.
"The Inner-Ring Renaissance project is poised to immediately generate near-term economic activity while at the same time laying the proven groundwork for significant long-term benefits," according to the application.
And though it's the same proposal as the past two rounds, Cole said Oak Park officials have aligned its proposal closer to what the federal officials seek with each application.
"We think we've done a good job," he said.