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Underpass could be expensive hurdle for Ottawa canal project

Commissioners remain divided on extra cost

A view looking west along the Illinois & Michigan Canal bed in Ottawa beneath the Columbus Street bridge. The city of Ottawa is reviewing safety concerns about the towpath going over Columbus and La Salle streets versus the cost of installing a trail underpass for foot and bicycle traffic once the canal is rewatered.
A view looking west along the Illinois & Michigan Canal bed in Ottawa beneath the Columbus Street bridge. The city of Ottawa is reviewing safety concerns about the towpath going over Columbus and La Salle streets versus the cost of installing a trail underpass for foot and bicycle traffic once the canal is rewatered.

Allowing foot and bicycle traffic to travel through a Route 23 underpass is a more convenient and safer channel on the Illinois & Michigan Canal towpath, but it’s also a potentially costly addition to the Ottawa canal rewatering project.

The City Council reviewed a contract with IMEG engineering firm earlier in the month that was approved Tuesday by a 3-2 vote, but discussion still arose over the concrete work required under the road for a pathway.

Don Dirks, president of the Starved Rock Cycling Association, submitted a letter to the council and spoke during Tuesday night’s meeting imploring the council to stick to the original plan and allow for a pathway underneath the bridge.

The canal path has been rerouted to Superior Street in preparation of canal construction.

“People who come from out of town and looking to use the canal path, they’re looking to be on the path away from traffic, and that’s a particularly hairy section of Columbus and La Salle Street when you’re trying to get from one side to another,” Dirks said.

He consulted other runners and regular users of the path who would prefer the underpass and also asked if the City Council would consider reopening the canal path along the canal for walking until construction begins.

Commissioner Dan Aussem said he understands why an underpass would be preferable for bicyclists but can’t support the potential cost of the walkway.

“Putting that concrete down is half a million (dollar) project and that puts us way out of budget,” Aussem said. “I just don’t see where we’re going to get that money.”

Mayor Bob Eschbach noted that until bids are placed next month, the cost of the concrete could come in on the lower side, around $200,000.

He noted the council could bid the project both with and without the underpass, but noted that the project has been approved by a number of organizations, including the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which approved it with the underpass in place due to safety concerns.

Commissioner Tom Aussem asked if Aussem’s original idea of handling the project in stages could be considered, meaning the underpass could be constructed later when more funds are identified.

Eschbach said any change to the project could set back two years’ worth of work getting approvals.

“I don’t mind giving it a try, but my fear is that if we alter the project substantially then we’re basically going back to the beginning to get repermitted by all those different agencies,” Eschbach said. “We’ve gone through this a million times and after years of negotiations with IDNR these have been the requirements they have based on safety concerns and so forth.”

Eschbach said funds could come from tax increment financing district money or money pulled from wind farms.

He again added that the conversation could change once bids for the project come in.

“I think we’re very, very close. They’re telling us to proceed and we’ll see where the bids come in,” Eschbach said. “I hope they’re lower, but we won’t know (until we bid).”

Aussem and Commissioner James Less voted no on the contract with IMEG engineering firm for $120,000.

Commissioner Wayne Eichelkraut added the city will not be charged for engineering supervision that has not yet been conducted if the project is not approved after bidding.

The project is expected to go out to bid in February.

Bidding was originally done in September but costs came in much higher than expected, which Eschbach said was due to a bad bidding time for contracts that lacked proper time to respond and get the work done.

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