Harlem Ave viaduct

Officials from Forest Park, Oak Park and River Forest continue to seek funding for the multimillion-dollar project to replace the railroad bridge at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard that is over 100 years old, applying once again for a federal grant, but this time using a consultant.

River Forest officials unanimously approved a resolution at the Feb. 13 village board meeting that supports Oak Park’s hiring of a Chicago-based transportation consulting firm to assist in applying for a Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) discretionary grant.  Forest Park Village Council approved a similar resolution the same day. 

The grant, which could be for as much as $25 million, would be used to fund construction costs for the project. Estimated cost of the project has risen since it was first proposed in 2008 and now stands at $34.6 million.

Harlem is the border between Oak Park on the east and Forest Park and River Forest on the west. The bridge also marks the border between River Forest on the north and Forest Park on the south.

The cost of the contract with Sam Schwartz Engineering is $15,000, with River Forest’s share being $3,740, or one-fourth of the total, reflecting the village’s ownership of one-fourth of the bridge. Forest Park’s share also will be $3,750 with Oak Park’s share of $7,500 reflecting that village’s ownership of half of the bridge.  

According to the Sam Schwartz website, the firm has been known “for 25 years as the transportation firm that solves the industry’s most challenging problems by balancing exemplary technical skills with exceptional creative approaches — a combination that sets our work apart.” 

In a memo to River Forest officials, Jeff Loster, director of public works and development services, said Sam Schwartz was selected by Oak Park officials “based on their prior experience and general background knowledge of this project.” Loster said at the Feb. 13 meeting that River Forest officials were approached by Oak Park officials when the grant opportunity came to their attention.

“With such a big price tag associated with a project like this, we’re always looking for funding opportunities that are applicable,” Loster said. Referring to a grant application submitted to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for funds that would help close out the Phase 1 work that stalled out years ago, he said the RAISE grant “has a bigger award cap and so we’re eyeing that as a source to address construction and construction management costs.”

Cathy Adduci, River Forest village president, noted that she and officials from Forest Park and Oak Park are working with elected officials at the state and federal level to obtain funding for the project.

“That’s the real key,” she said, identifying Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, Illinois Speaker of the House Emanuel “Chris” Welch and state Senator Kimberly Lightford as being involved on the state level and U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth on the federal level.

Forest Park mayor Rory Hoskins made revamping the bridge a major priority. During a Feb. 13 village council meeting, he reflected that the issue has been on the table since his first term as village commissioner in 2008. 

“That traffic snarl-up [at the bridge] is what hinders development [on the Forest Park side of Harlem Avenue],” Hoskins said. “It would be hard to bring in machines in there and the traffic is so bad — those kinds of things halt development.”

Later during the same meeting, commissioners authorized village administrator Moses Amidei to agree to commit the village to paying the local share if the application is successful. This came with a caveat that the village would look for grants and other funding sources to avoid having to cover as much of the local share from its own budget as possible. One of the potential funding sources is the Brown Street TIF, which the village is trying to extend before it expires at the end of 2023. 

The bridge was originally built in the 1920s to carry the Chicago and Northwestern Railway tracks over Harlem. It now carries the tracks of Metra, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Chicago Transit Authority. The purpose of the reconstruction project is to eliminate the congestion problems caused by the configuration of the existing structure, which has remained essentially unchanged since its construction over a century ago, despite significant increases in traffic along Harlem.

Plans from 2018 when the three municipalities unsuccessfully sought grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) called for replacing the existing bridge; lowering the Harlem roadway to reduce truck strikes to the viaduct; and adding pedestrian and aesthetic enhancements. The support column in the viaduct also would be removed in an effort to improve traffic in the area.

USDOT officials announced in December that $1.5 billion in grant funding would be available through the RAISE discretionary grant program for 2023. The program helps communities around the country carry out projects with significant local or regional impact. 

RAISE discretionary grants help project sponsors at the state and local levels, including municipalities, tribal governments, counties, and others complete critical freight and passenger transportation infrastructure projects. The eligibility requirements of RAISE allow project sponsors to obtain funding for projects that are harder to support through other USDOT grant programs. 

Igor Studenkov contributed to this report.