NORMAL — Normal City Council member Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday he's optimistic Bloomington will return to the bargaining table on the Metro Zone after the April 4 election.
"I'm hoping that cooler heads are going to prevail in two weeks and we can get back to the table and get past this," he said of the Bloomington City Council's Feb. 27 decision to terminate the 30-year-old revenue-sharing deal for west-side commercial and retail development.
"This issue is much bigger than Normal and Bloomington, and we really need to get back to the table and work together so we can move forward as a community."
That issue, more than any other, divided a largely agreeable field of council candidates at a forum Tuesday night. Participants were incumbents McCarthy and Scott Preston and challengers Chemberly Cummings and Ron Ulmer.
Ulmer said the town needs to forget about the Metro Zone and move on.
"It would be great if Bloomington would cooperate with us on many issues. ... If they don't, fine," he said. "The two cities sparring over this agreement is bad for economic development. ... It's bad publicity for the community when we don't look united."
Cummings and Preston said the more important point is that city and town officials listen to each other and understand each other's perspectives. The Bloomington City Council unilaterally terminated the Metro Zone, saying it favored Normal by a net $1.2 million per year, and has not responded to Normal's request to continue negotiating a new deal.
"Being able to have the conversation ... and understand where each other is coming from, and respect that, is vital," said Preston.
Candidates also differed on whether the town should build an underpass, overpass or no crossing at Uptown Station to get Amtrak passengers and other pedestrians across the tracks to the future "Uptown South" area.
The town is paying engineering firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff of New York $1.4 million to study which option is best. The town nearly went out for bids on an overpass in 2014, estimated then at $8.6 million, before deciding to do more research into an underpass, estimated in 2014 at $12.7 million.
"The long-term benefits of having the underpass will way outweigh having the overpass," said Cummings.
Preston said he prefers an at-grade crossing between Uptown Station and the Children's Discovery Museum, which railroad officials have ruled out, and he wants to see what the study has to say. McCarthy said he favors an at-grade crossing between buildings as well.
"If we have to choose over and under and we're able to get federal or state grants, I'm happy to support of those options," McCarthy said. "Without federal or state funding, I don't think those are feasible."
Ulmer said he favors using the current Linden Street crossing, about half a block from the station, until it becomes clear how much traffic will use the new south platform. He noted walking from the station to Linden and back to the the south platform is shorter than walking the platform at Chicago's Union Station.
The candidates also discussed sharing sales tax revenues across the city and town, which they support in general terms; a joint public library, which they would like to pursue but doubt Bloomington would join; and that supporting local business and young entrepreneurs is crucial to economic development.
The discussion, hosted by WGLT and the McLean County League of Women Voters at Illinois State University's University Galleries, was the latest in a series of election forums. The final forum, at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the galleries, will feature Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner and challenger Kevin Lower.