Sunday, May 29, was a beautiful day in Chicago. Day before Memorial Day, 70 degrees, sunny. Perfect day to head to Brookfield Zoo. Right?

Thousands thought so. In fact, there were so many people heading to Brookfield that the line of cars snaked down First Avenue from both the Stevenson and Eisenhower expressways. On Golfview Avenue, matters were made worse by the tight right turn into the parking lot by those heading southbound and the stream of cars seeking to make the left into the lot from the northbound lanes of Golfview.

While the zoo will remain one of the most popular attractions in the area, members of the U.S. Congress have just authorized some $3.2 million in federal grant money to help break the traffic bottlenecks around the zoo during peak visiting periods.

This afternoon at 1:30 p.m. Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-3rd) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Springfield) will hold a joint press conference at Brookfield Zoo announcing the zoo grant, which was part of a mammoth $286.4 billion federal transportation bill passed by the U.S. Senate Friday.

“The intersection of 31st and Golfview has been a problem not only for the zoo, but also for other people who live in the area and are stuck in the traffic,” Lipinski said. “This will help the zoo and also anyone who travels down 31st Street.”

President George W. Bush is expected to sign the bill, but Lipinski did not know exactly when funds might be released to the various municipalities and other government agencies. Brookfield Zoo is operated by the Chicago Zoological Society under the auspices of the Cook County Forest Preserve District. The funds require a 20-percent match from the entities receiving the federal grants.

Brookfield Zoo’s Vice President for Government Affairs Mena Boulanger beamed after hearing of the federal grant.

“We’re absolutely thrilled that the congressman and senators were able to get that level of funding for the project,” Boulanger said. “We’d like to begin construction as soon as possible.”

But there’s still a long way to go before construction can commence. Apart from actually receiving the funds, which will first be distributed to the Illinois Department of Transportation, Boulanger said the entire scope of the project will have to be worked out. Initially, the zoo had requested some $14 million from the federal government to reconfigure the traffic patterns around the zoo, and specifically Golfview Avenue. Boulanger said that IDOT has considered Golfview Road a concern for many years, and that they have even floated the idea of closing it off altogether, though nothing has come of that suggestion.

“Eighty percent of our guests come into the main lot, so this will all be focused at the north lot area,” Boulanger said. “Our goal is to see if we can get cars off that intersection and into the zoo quicker.”

Bike trail for N. Riverside?

Meanwhile, the transportation bill also includes a $1.9 million grant to build a bike trail that would connect the western part of North Riverside with Veteran’s Park on the east end of the village.

In 2003, Mayor Richard Scheck requested $2.75 million to fund extending the Salt Creek Bike Trail from the 14th Avenue Tot Spot, down Forestview Drive and 26th Street to Desplaines Avenue, where it would connect with the Village Commons campus and then eastward to Veteran’s Park.

In addition to the bike path, Scheck said the grant money would also be used to create “several car pool parking lots” along the trail and the creation of three “park and lock bicycle areas at the Tot Spot, Commons Park and Veteran’s Park. Creation of the parking areas, Scheck estimated would necessitate some land acquisition.

North Riverside Village Administrator Guy Belmonte said that the bike trail project would likely be scaled back, running from 9th Avenue to the park, since the village lacks the required right-of-way to extend it all the way to 14th Avenue. He also said he wasn’t sure where the parking lots would go or how many might actually be created.

The village has one municipal parking lot, located just east of Desplaines Road just south of 26th Street, in an area where there are a number of multifamily buildings.

“That lot did relieve a lot of parking problems in that area,” Belmonte said.