For the second straight year, River Forest, Oak Park and Forest Park are seeking $20 million from a highly-competitive federal grant program to replace the Harlem Avenue viaduct.

If the grant is approved, the plan is to make the area safer for drivers and pedestrians by replacing the entire 104-year-old bridge over Harlem Avenue between North and South boulevards. The grant application states that sidewalks will be widened, new lighting will be added and the area will become more compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The program is called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER. It is a nationwide discretionary program that funds surface transportation infrastructure projects that will have a significant impact on the nation, region or metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website.

The villages should know this fall if they will be getting some of the $500 million from this year’s effort, said Bill McKenna, Oak Park’s engineer.

“As long as [the River Forest] board feels that this is a public safety issue, we will support it,” said Eric Palm, River Forest’s village administrator.

While the village’s failed to get approval in 2014, last year’s application received some good comments and they were used to enhance this year’s submission. 

“We are hopeful this year that the TIGER people will see it our way and give us the grant,” said Tim Gillian, the village administrator for Forest Park. 

To get the money, the communities must demonstrate how the project will improve access to reliable, safe, and affordable transportation for disconnected communities in the adjoining urban and suburban areas, Palm told River Forest trustees in a memo on the TIGER grant. 

Given the stage the project is at, coupled with the purpose of the project, the effort makes it a good candidate for TIGER funding, Palm said.

The bridge, constructed in 1911, is structurally sound, McKenna said. The problem is that the roadway is narrow as columns divide the north and southbound lanes on Harlem. The road is highly traveled by cars, trucks and buses, which causes its own set of backups. 

Drivers attempt to avoid hitting the center columns and end up sideswiping cars as they try to turn, McKenna said. With a new bridge, the turning radius will be expanded to accommodate cars, buses and trucks. And there will be no more columns for drivers to contend with, McKenna added. 

Federal transportation officials who grade these applications will look favorably on theirs as it will provide jobs and benefit the communities’ intermodal transportation needs, Palm said. The CTA Green Line, bus lines and a Metra train stop in Oak Park are in the area. 

A plan to improve the viaduct had been in the works for years. A 2009 feasibility study pointed to the need to revamp the viaduct to improve public safety and access to jobs and foster economic development. That study was funded by an $800,000 federal grant combined with local funding from Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park.

It took several years to complete because a number of entities needed to be involved, McKenna and Palm said. Harlem Avenue is a state highway overseen by the Illinois Department of Transportation; the bridge is owned by Union Pacific; the UP leases the tracks to the CTA and Metra. 

If the grant is awarded, a design engineering study will be completed next year.

Construction could start in 2017 and take about 18 months to complete, McKenna said. 

The total cost, including the design engineering study, will be $25 million. Each community will provide a local share: Oak Park, $2.5 million; River Forest and Forest Park each will pay $1.25 million.