Riverside Village Board members voted to further pursue the option of rebuilding the 90-year-old pedestrian tunnel under the Riverside Train Station, opening the possibility of using a public referendum to pay for the construction costs, at their meeting Monday night.
At the meeting, representatives from Strand Associates, Inc., the consulting firm working with the village on restoring the tunnel, presented the board with three basic options for reconstruction: moving the site of the tunnel either east or west away from the train station, or completely rebuilding it at its current location.
Such reconstruction has become necessary following a notice to the village from Burlington Northern Railroad, which owns the land on which the tunnel is located, that they consider the tunnel a safety hazard. The village has been given until the end of the year to develop a reconstruction plan that complies with Burlington’s safety standards.
As explained by Strand representative Tony Standish, simply repairing the existing structure is not an option, given its age and extremely poor condition. Therefore, reconstruction is the only way to maintain a pedestrian tunnel near the train station.
In his presentation, Standish explained that moving the site of the tunnel east or west would cost the village an estimated $3.6 million or $3.2 million, respectively. Both sites would be required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, using ramps or elevators to allow for universal access to the underpass and also meeting specific height and width guidelines for the tunnel itself.
As for the expected costs of rebuilding at the current site, Standish estimated those to be between $2.7 million and $4.4 million, depending on whether the village made the new tunnel ADA-accessible. As explained by Clayton Weaver of Weaver Consulting, who worked with Strand and the village on this project, there is a chance the village would not have to make a new tunnel universally accessible if they were to prove such requirements would significantly damage the historical character of the station, which has been designated a local landmark. However, receiving such a waiver is unlikely.
“It’s not cast in stone, but it’s pretty firm that with a full replacement, accessibility would be required by the governing agencies,” Weaver said.
Despite the fact that it is potentially the most expensive proposal, board members voted to pursue the last option of rebuilding the tunnel at its current location, instructing Strand to abandon the other options and further develop design plans for a new tunnel at the station. Most board members said they doubted a tunnel moved away from the central location at the station would be used much by the public.
Two board members, however, did vote against the motion to further pursue rebuilding at the current site. Trustee William Scanlon argued that the board should not abandon the option of building east of station, where a tunnel could conveniently connect commercial areas divided by the train tracks.
Trustee Thomas Shields argued that the project should be abandoned entirely due to its high costs. Rather that replace it, he said, the existing tunnel should simply be filled in, which Standish estimated would cost only $80,000.
“There’s no question that the tunnel offers a valuable alternative, and it’s a shame we’re going to lose it,” he said. “But I feel we’re wasting time and money trying to save a luxury we truly can’t afford.”
Indeed, it was widely acknowledged that the village would have to go out for a referendum to approve the issuing of bonds to cover the costs of reconstruction. The second decision of the night, in which Shields was the only dissenting vote, instructed the village staff to draft an ordinance to place such a referendum on this November’s ballot. According to Village President Harold Wiaduck, there is simply no other source of funds to cover the project.
“Funding sources externally do not look very promising at this point,” he said. “In this particular instance, we have to go to citizens and ask if they are willing to pay.”
Many board members argued the tunnel was worth the estimated costs, given the added safety it provides for the many commuters and especially students who use the intersection every day. Although studies by both the village and Strand showed that less than 10 percent of the pedestrians who cross the tracks at the station use the existing tunnel, Strand’s study showed that more than a third of those who do are children.
“I don’t think having one safe place to cross the tracks is a luxury ?” it’s a necessity,” Trustee Kevin Smith said.
Other board members also argued the project should be pursued at least to the point of a referendum, given the strong public reaction against the suggestion the tunnel might be closed. In addition to the uncommonly large turnout at the meeting Monday night, Trustee Kevin Smith estimated that more than a dozen emails had been sent to the board strongly urging them to keep the tunnel open.
Further design plans for a rebuilt pedestrian tunnel will be presented at the board’s next meeting on Aug. 21. At that time, the board will also vote on whether to place an advisory referendum on the next ballot.