By Anna Lothson
Oak Park missed out for the third time but Village President David Pope said he was "cautiously optimistic" on the fourth round of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program.
The list, announced June 22, named 47 projects in 34 states and Washington D.C., which will receive part of the $500 million available during the TIGER 2012 program. Oak Park had sought a $26 million chunk of the $43 million project the village is planning.
The Oak Park project involves linking three downtown business districts to one another as well as two train stations. It includes a number of streetscape projects to help "realize a compelling, economically vibrant, and livable downtown center" according to the village's application, which would connect people to goods, services and jobs.
The plan, said to unify a 30-block area, would build upon other infrastructure projects the village has invested in, helping to achieve its goals for development across the districts.
Instead, village officials must look back to see what projects can be tackled without the extra funding from the federal government.
"We'll have an opportunity to check in with the Department of Transportation on how it was evaluated and how [Oak Park's application] stacked up with other proposals," Pope said, noting the U.S. DOT's commitment to investing in infrastructure throughout the country. "Obviously it was a tremendously competitive proposal."
Pope said the feedback received was "tremendously positive," but he understands that there's been a push for projects of larger scope, such as the CTA's Red Line expansion, which connects more people to resources.
He thinks it's critical to push toward investing in areas surrounding transit stations to "attract new residential and commercial investment."
"It is, in fact, cheaper for the public sector and for society to help bring new jobs and investment to existing transit infrastructure rather than the other way around," he said. "If we can advance proposals like those included in the village's TIGER application, … we can strengthen our ability to support businesses that require access to advancing technology offerings."
According to the grant application, Oak Park's Greater Downtown Master Plan and retail studies conclude that "significant efficiencies and opportunities could be realized by establishing linkages and common characteristics across the three districts."
Overall, the Inner-Ring Renaissance Project, the name designated by the village, would extend the ground streetscape improvements on North and South Marion through the remainder of the district to achieve the village's goal.
The elements of the project include replacing deteriorated underground infrastructure; reconstructing streetscapes using appealing, durable hardscape materials; expanding sidewalks and pedestrian areas and speed tables; increase bicycle parking; reducing intersection crosswalk distances; enhance pedestrian-level lighting; adding public seating; adding more plaza space and sidewalk landscape area; and connecting the downtown area with multimodal transit options.
As for the other TIGER grant applicants, two Illinois projects were awarded funding — the 95th Street terminal expansion project to repair and update bus terminals and stations, and the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Project, a public-private partnership to improve freight flows through the Chicago region. Collectively, the two were awarded roughly $30 million.
Trustee Ray Johnson said he was a bit stumped as to why Oak Park didn't make the cut.
"I believed based upon the input of the village president that we were in a very strong position to receive some funds," Johnson said. "I don't believe we would receive them all. … This is our second or third bite of that apple. We need to move forward and prioritize our investments in the community."
Regardless of federal funding, he said, the village has many projects, such as its 100-year-old waterlines, that need upgrading. Receiving grant dollars would have streamlined the projects, but Johnson said it's time to reevaluate.
"That's the ultimate question: How does that change our approach?" Johnson asked. "We are obviously very sensitive of our taxpayers. We are well aware of increases from other areas that have impacted residents."
But the work isn't going away, he emphasized.
"I'm disappointed that so much time and effort was spent for multiple grants, multiple times," Johnson said. He believes the process should have been run by the board earlier. "Certainly the village board was not strongly engaged. We didn't find out about the grant application until it was submitted. That was a process that cannot happen again."
Now, however, Johnson wants to look forward and have discussions on making investments using the village's own resources. For example, he'd like to see more focus on South Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street.
"That's where we are going to need to have some discussions. That's a lost opportunity that we didn't move forward with investing that was discussed about a year and half ago," he said. "We don't have that capacity within the TIF but the work still needs to be done."