The Riverside Village Trustees have done the right thing by putting to referendum the question of whether Riverside residents wish to fund the rebuilding of the underpass tunnel at the Burlington Northern tracks. Trustees have said this issue generated more communication from residents than any other issue in recent memory, which indicates that putting the question on the ballot is warranted, despite the effort and expense.
The tunnel itself is a worthy and notable feature of our town, deserving of proper maintenance. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to vote yes on the referendum.
Reluctantly, I have come to agree with the naysayers who believe that the price tag for repairing this piece of infrastructure, as valuable as it is, is beyond our means. The official estimate is between $2 million and $4 million. Given that the tunnel goes from one historic building to another, it seems likely that actual costs would go much higher once construction begins and unforeseen challenges emerge.
Some perspective is in order. When Riverside voters approved a property tax hike in 2004 to fund a street improvement and repair program, that sum was $2.1 million. In other words, we are able to fund street improvements throughout the entire village for three years for half of what it will likely cost to rebuild the tunnel.
We as a village would benefit from having a rebuilt tunnel because it is an important safety feature. Some residents have suggested that those who use it should be the ones to fund it. While the idea of a tollbooth standing sentinel over the tunnel is clearly impracticable and unfair, I find it hard to escape the conclusion that, compared to the street referendum, that tunnel is not going to provide double the value of our street repair program.
Unfortunately, this issue comes down to a question of financial priorities. Consider all the other important and valid demands that taxpayers now face or will soon face. First, there’s the high school. We have just embarked upon the largest and most expensive building project in local history and that hike hasn’t even hit our tax bills yet.
Additionally, there will almost certainly be an education fund referendum for the high school within the next several years. It is an unfortunate fact of life in Illinois that school districts need to go to their voters every seven or eight years under the current funding system, so it’s coming.
And look at District 96. Even though the current financial picture is rosy, given the generosity of voters in approving the most recent referendum in 2004, storm clouds are gathering. Our elementary schools are nearly at capacity and, as the district’s demographic study shows, we’re not even close to reaching the peak projected enrollment growth.
A solution must and will be found to ease the crowding while keeping class sizes low and achievement high. But it’s a safe bet that solution-whatever it is-won’t be free. Most likely, we voters will be asked to fund some method of creating new classroom space.
Even the village itself seems to be falling behind in its ability to keep up with necessary capital improvements. As reported in last week’s Landmark, village trustees and staffers have met to wrestle with the thorny question of how to fund necessary facility and infrastructure improvements without a dedicated revenue stream.
As a parent and taxpayer, the public schools are my top priority. I also want my village to be able to properly fund necessary improvements without cutting services to do so. And I want my neighbors who are on fixed incomes to be able to afford to stay in their homes while somehow finding the means to support the institutions that matter most.
Looking ahead to the not-so-distant future, we will all be forced to prioritize on some tough but worthy issues. Future generations may lament our shortsightedness in not saving our valuable tunnel, but I’m more concerned about exhausting our resources-and the taxpayers’ good will-when our schools and village infrastructure need our financial support more than ever.
Reluctantly, I will vote no.