SPRINGFIELD — An Illinois Commerce Commission official has given preliminary approval to a plan to use approximately $8 million in Grade Crossing Protection Fund money to build a bridge over the Illinois Central Railroad tracks, advancing the controversial Olympian Drive project.
Final approval by the five-member commerce commission could come Feb. 20, and local officials hope to begin work on the project later this year.
The project, which would create an east-west link between Interstate 57 and Lincoln Avenue about 2 miles north of Interstate 74, has been under local discussion for more than 15 years. It is designed to offer a more direct route for automobile and truck traffic between Interstate 57 and an industrial-zoned area along Lincoln Avenue north of Urbana.
The city of Champaign already has built its portion of the project, a segment from Interstate 57 to Apollo Drive. The next stage, about 1.1 miles from Apollo Drive to Lincoln Avenue, is the responsibility of the city of Urbana despite being in Champaign County.
"This has been a long time coming," said Champaign County Highway Engineer Jeff Blue. "We're hopeful we're going to get a good order from the commission."
Once the order is entered, he said, "the money is set aside for the project. It's our hope that we would bid this yet this spring and begin construction in the summer."
Testimony presented to the ICC said that if the project was bid this spring it could be completed in 2016.
Improvements to Lincoln Avenue between Olympian and Bradley avenues are slated for 2016. Eventually Urbana officials hope to extend Olympian farther east to U.S. 45.
The proposed bridge would be two lanes and cross a point at IC milepost 124.7, where the railroad has five sets of tracks. The concrete and steel bridge would be about 270 feet long, although the distance from "touchdown to touchdown" on the east and west embankments would be 3,330 feet.
A 1997 study by the Illinois Department of Transportation determined that the crossing should be grade-separated because of traffic from the IC rail yard north of Champaign.
"A bridge will eliminate any conflict between vehicular and pedestrian traffic and train movements that would exist at an at-grade crossing," wrote Timothy E. Duggan, the ICC's administrative law judge for the case. "The grade separation will increase both safety and emergency access to the entire area, and serve not only residents but all vehicular and pedestrian traffic using Olympian Drive."
Duggan said there are approximately 25 freight trains and six passenger trains daily that move along the stretch of track where the bridge would be located.
Traffic over the bridge in 2015 is projected at 1,800 vehicles a day.
A group of 27 landowners and residents, known as Preserve Olympian Farmland, intervened in the case as opponents to the project.
Duggan wrote that the opponents "presented no evidence that would suggest any reason not to order the allocation and (Grade Crossing Protection Fund) contribution requested."
"In order to complete a connection from the existing Olympian Drive to Route 45 it is necessary to cross the tracks. Intervenor does not challenge that a grade separation is a safer method of crossing tracks and allows traffic to cross even when a train is on the tracks at the point of the crossing," Duggan wrote. "Intervenor's own proffered expert acknowledged that a grade separation was preferable to an at-grade crossing. The necessity to cross the tracks to complete a connecting route is obvious and the bridge is the preferred method of crossing."
Three Champaign County Board members — Republicans Stan James and Diane Michaels, along with Democrat Pattsi Petrie — late last month wrote to the commerce commission about the funding of the project. They noted that the board approved an intergovernmental agreement that said the county wouldn't pay any of the costs of the project, but noted that a document filed with the ICC said that the county would contribute $177,198.
Blue, the county engineer, said the county contribution was an indication of the amount of staff time that would be devoted to the project.
"What that money is in there for is to cover staff time for project costs, whether it be construction engineering, overseeing construction during the project, and what have you," he said. "It's not going to pay for any concrete, asphalt or steel. It's just our estimate of if we were out on the project, overseeing construction."
James said he doesn't believe any county funds should go to the project.
"In my mind, if you're doing oversight, who's paying those salaries? If we're paying those salaries, that's county money being spent on the project," said the Rantoul area Republican. "In my mind here, something's not right. But that's me. Government turns in funny ways and if it goes through it goes through. I don't see how anyone gets the authority to put that figure down without getting approval.
"Just take a look around at all of our roads. We're building a new road here, and I know there are funding sources. But we should be putting money into our existing roads instead of worrying about putting in a new road.'