By Mike Matejka
With winter upon us, consider what it takes to catch a northbound train at Amtrak’s Normal Uptown Station. Two years ago, the platforms south of the tracks were rebuilt and they are now used for some trains. To reach the platforms, passengers must walk west to Linden Street or east to Broadway, cross the tracks there, and then back track to the platforms. With icy, slushy, cold weather, imagine lugging a suitcase or two to catch the train. It’s ridiculous.
Luckily, a solution is apparent. Normal has been awarded a $13 million federal grant to build an underpass at the Amtrak station. This will allow passengers to easily access the platform, it will also allow pedestrians and cyclist to easily use the Constitution Trail and link the north and south legs. I bike on the trail and it’s rather clumsy to get from the north side to the south side. One rides along the station platform and then make a tight turn at Linden. If passengers, pedestrians or families with strollers are there, it can be difficult.
Safety is the additional key component for building an underpass. Longer and longer freight trains are using the Union Pacific Railroad two tracks. They often stop before entering the Bloomington yards, blocking street intersections in Normal. Too often students hurrying to class try to climb through or under the freight cars. This is a tragedy waiting to happen, particularly with two active rail lines. Imagine a student scrambling on train cars and the train suddenly starts; or climbing through the cars, talking on a cell phone and alighting on the opposite side, just as Amtrak comes swooshing by. We don’t need a tragedy to a young life.
Some might argue that an at-grade crossing at the Station from one platform to the other is the inexpensive solution. Convincing the Union Pacific Railroad to allow a pedestrian crossing over their tracks will be a non-starter. The Railroad, not the Town, owns the tracks. Plus that would need Illinois Commerce Commission permission.
An underpass would open development possibilities on the track’s south side. With an underpass, businesses, a new library or affordable community housing could be built. The underpass would allow those enterprises on the south to access Uptown Station buses and businesses seamlessly. Businesses locating on the south side can then help build the local tax base.
Finally, when was the last time federal dollars came to our community? If Normal says no, imagine the response when Normal or other McLean County governments try to win local enhancements and return some of our tax dollars home? The word in Washington, D.C. will be don’t offer grants to McLean County, they won’t accept it.
An underpass makes sense – it makes sense for Amtrak riders, for Constitution Trail users and for economic development. Hopefully the Town Council will have the vision to support it.
Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society. He currently serves on the Normal Planning Commission.
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