NORMAL — In what one member called a "25-year decision," the Normal City Council picked an underpass as the preferred option for an Uptown Station railroad crossing Monday, putting the controversial project on track to be built.
Members voted 5-2 to stop studying all crossing options except building an underpass or using existing crossings at Broadway Avenue and Linden Street to move Amtrak passengers, pedestrians and Constitution Trail users between the station and the proposed Uptown South district.
Members cited safety, accessibility and aesthetics among their reasons for choosing the underpass with attached park — a decision backed by the majority of public commenters and by the consultant conducting the study, New York City-based WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Members Kathleen Lorenz and Scott Preston voted "no" on narrowing the study to the underpass. Both said they were not convinced an underpass is the only viable option for the crossing.
The consultant presented seven options, including doing nothing and building various types of overhead crossings and underpasses, and the most expensive of those was the underpass with a park.
"I was looking for either a more definitive answer for one or at least an acknowledgement that there could be more than one that was viable for further study," Lorenz said. "Could we look at a top two or a top three? ... Without putting all of our chips on one number."
WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff will now do an environmental study and preliminary design work on an underpass and a no-build plan, including detailed cost estimates. That work is expected to be finished next fall.
Members stressed that choosing to study the underpass doesn't mean it will be built. Once the study is finished, the town will use it to solicit state or federal grant funding — without which the project is impossible, said Mayor Chris Koos.
Koos said those factors make the current lack of detailed cost estimates less significant. Normal's 2014 Uptown 2.0 plan, which first recommended building an underpass, listed it at $12.7 million and an overpass at $8.6 million.
"There's a lot of unknowns at this stage," said Bruce Nelson, a project manager at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff. "We don't know what steel prices are going to be in two years. We don't know what labor prices are going to be. That's all going to come out in preliminary engineering."
Marc Tiritilli, a frequent critic of town spending who lost to Koos in the April 4 election, told the council the town could do the project better without jumping through hoops for federal funding.
The current study, a $1.4 million expense, was intended to satisfy federal grant requirements, and City Manager Mark Peterson said Monday an underpass is more likely to get federal money than an overpass.
"We've got a state that can't keep our schools open, can't keep our buses running. We've got a federal government that's $20 trillion in debt," Tiritilli said. "We need to do our part to help reduce this budget crisis at all levels. ... It's all our money."
Council member Kevin McCarthy said the town has an obligation to "get our money back and spend it in our own community."
"It's incumbent on us to bring as much value from the federal government back to our community as we can," said Koos.
Council member Jeff Fritzen dismissed the idea that the council effectively decided on an underpass two years ago, when it voted to abandon an overpass project that already had grant funding in favor of studying an underpass. He said Monday an attractive overpass could still be a good option.
"The reason this community has been so successful, and that includes with uptown, is we take time to do things the right way, or, upon discovering that they're not feasible, they're not possible, then we don't do them," said council member R.C. McBride. "That takes research."