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CHAMPAIGN — Construction is set to begin as soon as next month on the long-awaited improvements to a busy section of St. Mary’s Road.

The entryway to the UI is to receive about $1.6 million in improvements between Neil and Oak streets, said Stacey DeLorenzo, with the UI’s Facilities & Services department.

“We hope to begin as soon as weather breaks in March,” she said. “We’re trying to get it finished before the fall semester starts.”

The work will include providing the sidewalk that’s missing for pedestrians between Neil and Oak streets on the north side of St. Mary’s Road, resurfacing, signal improvements, upgrading curbs and filling in street lighting where it’s needed.

“The main reason is for safety purposes since there is no pedestrian access or path underneath that viaduct,” DeLorenzo said. “It’s increasingly busier for pedestrians to use it. We wanted to make a protected sidewalk or pathway on the north side of the street so people either walking or on a bike could not be having to deal with the cars all the time.”

The viaduct itself is owned by the railroad, so that can’t be widened, and one westbound driving lane will be dropped, she said.

“We’re just looking forward to getting it done,” DeLorenzo said.

The project is being managed by the city on behalf of the university, which owns the road and plans to pay for it with state funding, DeLorenzo said.

Champaign public works spokesman Kris Koester said the project has long been planned for this summer, though he wasn’t sure if it would begin next month.

“It’s imminent. It’s happening in 2021, but we don’t have a selected construction vendor,” he said.

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.

”Officials at the University of Illinois are concerned about future traffic congestion, conflicts among modes of transportation and safety in this corridor as a result of future development,” the report said.

The road leads into the UI’s Research Park. Its executive director, Laura Frerichs, welcomed the improvements.

“We are seeking better connectivity to Neil Street and the city of Champaign retail corridor, and that’s via a viaduct that’s very hard to get through right now” for pedestrians and bicyclists, she said at last week’s Research Park board meeting. “These improvements are a significant investment.”

Viaduct issues are a problem Savoy Village President Joan Dykstra wishes she had.

For years, the village has been applying for federal grants to build an underpass at Curtis Road under the railroad, which would be raised. It was planning to submit an application this spring for a Department of Transportation Infrastructure For Rebuilding America grant, but the Biden administration put a pause on submissions while it revises the grant’s “Notice of Funding Opportunity.”

Dykstra said she doesn’t know when it will open back up, “but when they do, we will be on top of it.”

“We need federal money,” she said. “We’re a small village and won’t be able to do it without federal money.”

The entire project would cost an estimated $38.8 million, with half coming from the federal government, $12 million from the Illinois Commerce Commission, about $4.5 million from Savoy and most of the rest from Champaign County.

Dykstra said the village has received good feedback on its previous applications, but said the grants are “highly competitive.”“It’s just a tough grant to get,” she said.

Dykstra said the improvements are needed for various reasons, from safety to emergency access, “not to mention the economic development that would be enhanced.”

“Ultimately it will need to happen,” she said.

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