Courtesy of Javier Govea

With $17 billion expected to be available to Illinois through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act approved last November, officials in Forest Park, Oak Park and River Forest are dusting off dormant plans for a multimillion dollar project to replace the century-old railroad bridge at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard.

The three municipalities have applied previously for such funding, most recently in 2017, but have been consistently turned down.

Cathy Adduci, River Forest village president, said at the Feb. 28 village board meeting that federal funding should be available, adding that she is working with her counterparts, Mayor Rory Hoskins of Forest Park and President Vicki Scaman of Oak Park “to put pressure on” Illinois senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.

In a memo, Jeff Loster, director of public works and development services, said the project was introduced in 2008 when the three municipalities entered into an intergovernmental agreement to complete Phase 1 engineering for the project although a feasibility study was conducted in 1999.

The bridge was originally built in the 1920s to carry the Chicago and Northwestern Railway tracks over Harlem Avenue. It now carries tracks for Metra, Union Pacific Railroad and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) trains.

The purpose of the reconstruction project is to eliminate the congestion caused by the configuration of the existing structure, which has remained essentially unchanged since its construction despite significantly increased traffic along Harlem Avenue.

Phase 1 engineering has been funded at 80 percent through the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) with the remaining 20 percent divided among the three municipalities.

Tasks included conceptual design, intersection/accident studies and analysis and project renderings. Also initiated during Phase 1 engineering were discussions with other stakeholders, including Metra, Union Pacific, the CTA and IDOT.

Though much of the Phase 1 engineering has been completed, the project stalled due to an inability to get all stakeholders to agree in concept to an overall intergovernmental agreement for the project.

Some of the issues that arose include Union Pacific/Metra/CTA concerns regarding operations during construction, Union Pacific requiring substantial review fees prior to furthering discussions and identification of the party responsible for ownership and ongoing maintenance of the bridge after construction.

Loster said Union Pacific currently owns the bridge but would prefer not to after completion of the project.

Estimated cost of the project has risen since it was first proposed in 2008 and now stands at $30 million. Loster said there are facets of the Phase 1 work that are already completed that will need to be updated, mostly related to traffic impact studies due to variable rates of traffic over the years and area development that has since occurred.

Plans from 2018 when the three municipalities unsuccessfully sought grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation called for replacing the existing bridge, lowering the Harlem roadway to reduce truck strikes to the viaduct and adding pedestrian and aesthetic enhancements. The support column in the middle of the viaduct also would be removed in an effort to improve traffic flow.

Loster said with known issues unrelated to funding currently holding up the project, the optimal path forward would be to resolve these issues first. If the project is to proceed, he recommended that the impacted agencies by contacted to continue discussions regarding an intergovernmental agreement for the project in the following order – Union Pacific, IDOT, CTA and Metra. This appears to be the optimal sequence for attempting to resolve this issue or discovering any nonstarters in an efficient manner.

Bill McKenna, Oak Park’s village engineer, said that that village is “on the same page as River Forest” on the status and next steps for the project.

Moses Amidei, village administrator of Forest Park, said officials of his village support the effort but noted the challenge will be to obtain the support of the CTA, Metra and Union Pacific.

Illinois officials are estimating that $17 billion of the $1.2 trillion available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would come to the state. Illinois could have an advantage because Rebuild Illinois, a $45 billion multiyear state spending plan paid by gasoline and vehicle taxes, will provide matching funds to attract more federal grants.

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