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Push continues to replace narrow, antiquated viaduct in Chillicothe

Chillicothe viaduct
Courtesy Mike Krost
Chillicothe viaduct

Drivers traveling along Illinois 29 on the north side of Chillicothe must contend with a piece of aging infrastructure that presents a significant collision risk: a century-old viaduct with a narrow roadway and low clearance.

Efforts to replace the passageway underneath the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail tracks date back to the 1990s, when the Illinois Department of Transportation considered widening Route 29 to four lanes.

“First off, the thing is well over 100 years old,” said Mike Krost, who serves as chair for the Chillicothe Viaduct Safety Initiative. “Vehicles that use it, to drive underneath the railroads, have changed in that 100-year period. They're a lot bigger, they go a lot faster, and it's time for the thing to be replaced.”

Krost and the safety initiative have been working to get the viaduct problem addressed for about 13 years, in conjunction with the possible roadway widening.

“It would go from a two-lane, one each direction, to a four-lane: two lanes each direction, (with) an 18-foot median, an 8-foot sidewalk on one side, and a 12-foot sidewalk on the other side," Krost said. "Back when we started all of this, the cost was somewhere around $14 million. Well, now it's blossomed to a little over $50 million.”

Krost says that has led to a rather bumpy road in trying to keep the possibility on track.

“We have applied, I think, around five or six times to the federal government for funding,” he said. “Back in the old TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) days, as they were called during the Obama administration, we applied for those. They all went to Springfield; we didn't get anything out of that.

“Then most recently, we applied through the Federal Railroad Administration. It was really competitive (and) we didn't get anything out of that; that all went to very large cities.”

Eric Miller, executive director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission (TCRPC), says replacement of the viaduct poses an unusual dilemma.

“The city of Chillicothe is sort of in a quandary, in that they don't own any of the property. It's not really their project,” said Miller, noting that IDOT is in charge of the highway while BNSF owns the railway. “Chillicothe finds itself in sort of the driver's seat here. But they're not really in the decision making seat, if you will. It's the state and the railroad who are making those decisions.”

Miller says the TCRPC has assisted the Chillicothe Viaduct Safety Initiative in attempts to get government funding.

“This past spring, we were involved with the process to actually write a federal grant (application) for them to get it replaced; it was not selected,” Miller said. “Some of the feedback that we received from that federal grant is that we did not have an active Benefit-Cost Analysis. This past July, we set back some money for the development of an up-to-date BCA. So we've hired a local consultant who's running that study for us right now, and we'll come back with some hopefully some encouraging numbers.”

So, precisely what would an updated Benefit-Cost Analysis determine?

“If that facility were not to exist, or it had to be closed for some safety reason, what is the cost to reroute all those trucks?” Miller said. “From my understanding, the closest truck route is Illinois Route 40, which is 25 miles away. So what they do is sort of extrapolate numbers and put some dollars to those numbers to come up with the costs of not having that facility in place.

“They also put some costs of having an improved facility in that place of what it might do to land use development and economic development of having a safe, traversable roadway that perhaps would not be an impedance to development on the north side of the tracks.”

Krost says their effort has gotten support from several elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Dunlap. In a statement provided by the congressman’s office, LaHood said the viaduct project “is of critical importance” to the Chillicothe community.

“Since my time in the State Senate, I have been engaged on this project and continue to advocate for the transformation and modernization of the viaduct,” LaHood said. “Our office will continue to work with our federal, state, and local partners to find a solution and path forward that can alleviate the safety concerns around the viaduct and improve the flow of transportation.”

In a statement provided to WCBU, BNSF acknowledged that the widening of Illinois 29 underneath the transcontinental rail line “has been contemplated for over two decades.”

“If and when the Illinois Department of Transportation determines it is necessary to move forward with the project, BNSF is committed to working with the department to preserve and enhance our ability to serve customers today and in the future,” the statement said.

IDOT also provided WCBU with a statement regarding their stance on the viaduct replacement effort.

“The Illinois Department of Transportation has evaluated the need for improvements to the Illinois 29 viaduct in recent years. The department is not pursuing a project or including in its multiyear program, which is developed based on system needs and available resources.

“The structure also is owned and maintained by the BNSF Railroad, which would need to continue to take on those responsibilities in the future. As always, we look forward to working with local stakeholders to address safety concerns and possible solutions.”

Although reports show that stretch of Illinois 29 carries around 8,000-9,000 vehicles per day, Krost and Miller both admit the biggest holdup is that the viaduct replacement hasn't scored high enough on IDOT's project analysis formula.

“We had hoped to remain in the State of Illinois’ projected planning process for funding; we've been in, we've been out, we've been in. We're currently out of that right now,” Krost said. “They use a matrix now – that's pretty complicated – to assess what projects they're going to give attention to. Ours is nowhere near being on the list. Sixty points got you some money and we're at 10.5 right now.”

Chillicothe viaduct
Courtesy Mike Krost
Chillicothe viaduct

While the narrow passage under the viaduct effectively acts as a choke-point for traffic, the two tracks on the overpass are part of a transcontinental rail line and carry around 70 trains a day. Krost says BNSF has expressed a desire to add a third track, as well as a service road and a pedestrian path.

He says the company and the safety initiative have even established a plan for replacing the viaduct while the tracks remain in service.

“What would happen, the viaduct – there's actually two of them – the north one used to have seven tracks on top of it; it used to be a yard. Well, they're going to use that old one as what they call a ‘shoe-fly’ to get around the mainline while the mainline is under construction with the new viaduct," Krost said.

“Then once the new viaduct is done, they would tear down that north viaduct and never replace it again; it just disappears. The only structure left then would be the one that they want to have three railroad tracks, a pedestrian way, and a roadway on top.”

Krost and the safety initiative will hold a public meeting at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Chillicothe Public Library. Railway representatives and elected officials are expected to attend to discuss the project and possible funding opportunities.

Even if everything came together right away and the project received a green light, Krost says it would still be several years before the viaduct could be completely replaced.

“I wouldn’t look forward to driving on the pavement until 2028,” he said.

Miller suggests it might even take longer than that.

“Everything takes time and money, as you know, with transportation improvements,” Miller said. “If we can make it higher on IDOT’s priority list, then it would receive funding faster. I would say in a perfect world, you're 5-10 years out from turning a shovel. But again, money can make things happen quicker.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.