SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Commerce Commission has approved the use of $7.8 million in railroad crossing protection funds to build a bridge for Olympian Drive over the Illinois Central Railroad tracks north of Urbana.
The overpass project is one of the last major steps toward completion of the long-controversial development to create an east-west link between Interstate 57 and Lincoln Avenue about 2 miles north of Interstate 74.
The entire Olympian project 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 share 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 although it is in unincorporated Champaign County.
The commerce commission approved the allocation Thursday morning with little debate.
Commissioner Miguel del Valle amended the order slightly, he said, to "reflect the more substantial role that the commission has in these proceedings, explaining that the Grade Crossing Protection Fund dockets are not merely about approval of funding but must satisfy an inquiry into the public interest requirements" of the Illinois Vehicle Code.
"It is certainly in the interest of public health and safety that a crossing be safe," says the ICC order, "and no one has disputed the safety of the proposed bridge crossing. The joint petitioners have proposed the above-grade crossing as a necessary part of a long-term project, which the local authorities have deemed necessary."
A group of 27 landowners and residents, known as Preserve Olympian Farmland, intervened in the case as opponents to the Olympian Drive project.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, long a supporter of the project, credited County Engineer Jeff Blue and Urbana Public Works Director Bill Gray with advancing the project.
"This has been in the works a long time. There have been endless public hearings, so there was a lot of extra expense," she said. "But we have a good system in this country where people can object to things and they can get a fair hearing.
"This has been endlessly discussed and I thought it was very nice that the commerce commission approved this unanimously. But it took a lot of patient, professional work, and I have to credit Bill Gray and Jeff Blue for that."
County officials have said they hope to begin construction of the Olympian extension this year. Testimony presented to the ICC said that if the project was bid this spring it could be completed in 2016.
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."
Total cost of the project, according to the ICC, is estimated at $15.7 million, which includes engineering work, construction, relocating utilities and acquisition of necessary right of way. The Grade Crossing Protection Fund allocation of $7.8 million will cover a portion of the costs to construct the bridge, highway approaches and other improvements necessary for the project.
Further, the city of Champaign will pay approximately $752,000 of project costs. Urbana and Champaign County will each contribute approximately $177,000 toward the project and the Illinois Department of Transportation will pay about $3.3 million.
The county's share, according to county engineer Jeff Blue, is in engineering services that may be reimbursable.