Safer path forward sought under St. Mary's Road viaduct

Safer path forward sought under St. Mary's Road viaduct

CHAMPAIGN — In 2008, the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission recommended a sidewalk be added to the St. Mary's Road viaduct — the only viaduct in town under the Canadian National Railroad without one.

It estimated the sidewalk, a new bike lane and a reduction from three lanes to two would cost about $150,000, less than a roughly $785,000 alternative to build a pedestrian/bike tunnel under the viaduct.

Ten years later, the nearby University of Illinois Research Park has doubled in size and number of employees, and the Neil Street retail scene is bustling.

Still, there isn't a sidewalk at the St. Mary's Road viaduct.

"We get regular complaints that people probably would love to be able to just walk across the street and take advantage of that, but you've got a viaduct situation that is pedestrian-precarious," said Laura Frerichs, director of the UI Research Park. "It's hazardous."

Any project at the viaduct would be complicated because of the numerous stakeholders involved, including:

— Various groups at the University of Illinois (which owns the land northeast of the viaduct).

— The Catholic Diocese of Peoria (which owns the St. Mary's Cemetery southeast of the viaduct).

— The city of Champaign (which has jurisdiction of the surface under the viaduct).

— The Canadian National Railroad (which owns the tracks).

— The Illinois Department of Transportation (which has jurisdiction over Neil Street).

— Barr Properties (which owns the building northwest of the viaduct).

— Enterprise Rent-a-Car (southwest of the viaduct).

There are also several other organizations, such as Ameren and Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, which could be affected by any changes to the viaduct.

But there have recently been talks to improve the viaduct.

The city of Champaign's Planning and Public Works departments recently met with various UI officials to discuss the viaduct, and they decided the next step is another study and looking for funding.

"There was a consensus around the safety concerns at that location," Frerichs said. "I think the parties that met on Friday agreed this should be studied and we should come up with an engineering design for that."

Frerichs said another study is needed because traffic has increased and costs have changed since the 2008 study, which also didn't look at what changes would be needed at the Neil Street intersection.

The engineering study will also go into much more detail than the 2008 study, said Bruce Knight, Champaign's planning and development director.

"They'll survey the area and do an analysis to make sure the measurements work," Knight said.

Stacey DeLorenzo, the coordinator of transportation demand management at the UI's Facilities & Services Department, said the engineering study likely "won't be complete until the end of this current calendar year," and any construction timelines would depend on finding funding for the project.

The project will also likely need some cooperation from CN, though part of the reason officials prefer the proposal to add a sidewalk and reducing lanes is that it would be less disruptive to the railroad.

For its part, CN said it hasn't been involved in any discussions yet about the viaduct.

"I don't believe this project has made it to the point where the railroad would be involved," said spokesman Patrick Waldron. "Speaking generally, such a project by a city or road authority would involve some collaboration, but exactly what would depend on the project itself."

Kent Brown, spokesman for the UI's Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, said the DIA would support improvements to the viaduct, but isn't actively advocating for it.

"Very few of our patrons park on that side of the railroad tracks," he said.

Vance Barr, who owns the building northwest of the viaduct, said a sidewalk and bike lane wouldn't directly impact his building much, since most of the pedestrian and bike traffic is to and from the Research Park, but he said "it would be beneficial to the area."

Knight said it's normal for infrastructure projects to take a long time.

"I think the powers that be at the athletics department and university back then didn't see this as a priority, so it didn't happen. Now everybody does see it as a priority," Knight said. "But the reality is, it's not uncommon for transportation improvements to take a while before they actually get implemented."

Since the 2008 study, Research Park has grown from 949 employees and eight building to about 2,000 employees and 17 buildings, Frerichs said.

She said more people would walk under the viaduct to Neil Street restaurants for lunch if it there were a safer path.

And in the meantime, Frerichs touts the food trucks that stop by the Research Park, and the recently opened mixed-use building has four potential retail options that some local restaurants have looked at.

"In the interim, creating walkable, within the confines of the park, restaurant options is important," Frerichs said.

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chescigar wrote on March 04, 2018 at 5:03 pm
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The DIA should reconsider its position. For at least football games, there's lots of foot traffic under that bridge. Local fans walk to tailgating and the game from neghborhoods west of the tracks.  Opposition fans who tailgate in the Research Park area go west and then return in search of food, beer, or whatever.

This comes at some of the busiest times of the week for that road, on football weekends where there's plenty of vehicles. On some weekends at least and we hope more? The potential for conflict is high and the results of car vs pedestrian are likely to be consequential.