Villages take another shot at Harlem viaduct grant

Seek $21 million in federal funds to replace century-old span

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By Deborah Kadin

Will the third time be the charm for three area communities to get federal funding to upgrade the aged Harlem Avenue viaduct?

Shut out in 2014 and 2015, River Forest, Oak Park and Forest Park will seek nearly $21 million under the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, or TIGER. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced the latest round of grants, totaling $500 million, in March. 

The highly-competitive discretionary federal program funds surface transportation infrastructure projects, including multi-jurisdictional efforts that have a significant impact on the nation, region or metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Getting the multi-million grant would be the culmination of more than seven years of work, which began with a 2009 feasibility study pointing to the need to revamp the viaduct to improve public safety, access to jobs and to foster economic development. That study was funded by an $800,000 federal grant combined with local funding from Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park.

U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-7th) said he thinks that the project is in a good position to happen. 

"The U.S. Department of Transportation is well aware of our interest that the [viaduct] gets done, that it is a high priority," Davis said in a telephone interview. "This project would have regional impact. You can't have much more of a regional impact than Harlem Avenue." 

To ensure their prospects, Davis also urged Oak Park to take advantage of the technical assistance from Transportation Department staff so the application meets the criteria and the vision in terms of the impact that the project will have in the area. Oak Park is the lead agency in applying for the grant. 

Oak Park spokesman David Powers said engineering staff has had a number of conversations with federal transportation staff. The critique that they discussed has been how to highlight the broadest benefits of the project and those have been addressed in the latest application, which will be turned in before the end of the month.

"USDOT has said that the biggest obstacle to funding is the abundance of competitive projects in the region," Powers said. "When they find they have multiple projects from a region, they look for the best. And best means the greatest benefit."

To get funding for the project itself, Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park must demonstrate that this enterprise will improve access to reliable, safe and affordable transportation for disconnected communities in the adjoining urban and suburban areas. 

Federal transportation officials who grade these applications will look favorably on ones that will provide jobs and benefit the communities' intermodal transportation needs, River Forest Village Administrator Eric Palm said. The CTA Green Line terminal in Forest Park, bus lines and a Metra train stop in Oak Park are all in the area. 

The 104-year-old railroad bridge is on Harlem Avenue a block south of Lake Street at a location where the three communities share borders. For years the span has decayed, presenting its own negative economic and social impacts for the area, according to the most recent grant application. 

The bridge is structurally sound. The problem is that the roadway is narrow, because columns divide the north and southbound lanes on Harlem. The road is highly traveled by cars, trucks and buses, which causes its own set of backups. 

If the grant is approved, the plan is to make the area safer for drivers and pedestrians by replacing the entire bridge over Harlem Avenue. That would also mean that an increased under clearance, which would reduce the potential for trucks striking the bridge, incidents which lead to huge traffic back-ups and long detours. Improved sidewalks and lighting will offer a brighter connection to the area. The area also will become ADA accessible. 

The total cost, including the design engineering study, will be about $26.1 million. The local match of about $5.2 million will be provided through a variety of different sources. Oak Park's share will be 50 percent, for an estimated $2.6 million. Forest Park and River Forest each would pitch in 25 percent, or about $1.3 million apiece. 

"We'll see how that one shakes out. We're keeping our fingers crossed," Palm said. 

Forest Park Village Administrator Tim Gillian is hopeful. 

"Each time we apply we strengthen our application," Gillian said. "I hope Congressman Davis will help us with this and gets it pushed through."

If the grant is awarded, plans and specifications would be completed by March 2018. Construction would begin in August 2018 with completion targeted for November 2019, according to the application submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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