JOLIET – It won’t be long now, relatively speaking, until the new train station is built in downtown Joliet.
The project has been in the works for six years.
But construction is starting in a few weeks, and the station is expected to open by the end of 2017.
Local, regional and state officials gathered Friday for a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the commencement of the latest phase of the project.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said to start off the ceremony in which he and others would dig shovels into railroad track gravel for the groundbreaking photo opportunity.
Even when it’s done, however, it won’t quite be done.
A new bus station that was to be part of the transportation center when plans first were announced in November 2010 still awaits funding. That part of the plan is on hold until money is available.
At one time there were estimates that the complete Joliet Gateway Center – the name given to the multifaceted project designed to put all of the city’s public transit in one central hub – would be done be late 2013.
‘Nice – finally’
Even four years later, a modern train station will be welcomed by Metra commuters, who have been buying tickets out of a temporary trailer and waiting for the train outdoors since the old Union Station was closed off to them in September 2014.
“It will be nice – finally,” Mary Stechyna of Joliet said as she waited for the Rock Island Metra train at the canopied boarding area that is one of the completed parts of the project.
Stechyna will not miss the old Union Station, which she found “kind of dumpy.” She said she is looking forward to “cleanliness, maybe a little coffee shop, WiFi accessibility” once the new station opens.
Among those at the groundbreaking was state Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn, who said the Joliet project was aimed at “having services available for people. But it’s also about amenities, so people aren’t standing in the snow.”
But for the state of Illinois, the project never would have got started.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn came to Joliet just days before the November 2010 election to announce a state grant to jumpstart the construction of a new public transit center. City officials for months had been applying unsuccessfully for federal grants available for public transportation projects.
The $30 million from the state made up the bulk of what was estimated to be a $42 million project.
Costs have climbed since, and the final price for the project now is estimated at $50 million.
But the availability of state funds became an issue almost from the start as Illinois finances worsened. Within months, the state grants were caught up in litigation that tied up state capital funding, the first financial snag in the project.
More recently, the state put a hold on funding over concerns that Joliet was not going forward with the bus station.
A $16 million contract with Walsh Construction, the company building the train station along with a new commuter platform, was held up for nine months until city, state and regional transportation officials sorted out what to do about the bus station.
Also at the groundbreaking was Rick Kwasneski, chairman of the board for Pace.
“We’re still confident that it [the bus station] eventually will be part of the project, but it just won’t happen when we thought it would,”” Kwasneski said.
He did say Pace would join the city to seek funding for the bus station.
The bus station, already downsized from the original plan, would include a turnaround area to accommodate buses. The cost is pegged at $7.5 million.
While the project has taken longer than expected, the most challenging work has already been done, said Lisa Dorothy, project manager for the city of Joliet.
The railroad tracks have been realigned to separate freight trains from commuter trains, which speeds up freight movement through downtown and makes boarding safer for rail commuters.
“They’re going to get a new state-of-the-art train station, and they have improved safety,” Dorothy said. “They no longer will have to walk across live tracks at any time.”
Heritage Corridor commuters walked across the tracks to board from Union Station. In the new set-up, they will use underground tunnels to get to the commuter platforms that Walsh Construction will build.
Even without the funding issues, the project was likely to be a long one. Construction on the track realignment took place while trains were going through, a process that slowed down jobs as workers would have to clear the tracks for safety’s sake.
Walsh Construction will work around the trains as it builds the new platform and station.
“That’s probably the biggest challenge,” said Robert Tansey, project manager for Walsh. “When the trains come, a lot of times we stop working.”
But the delays have been factored into the schedule.
Metra Executive Director Don Orseno joined the festivities Friday, saying the regional public transportation network needed “more groundbreakings – renovations turning old and not as functional as they used to be facilities into newer, more innovative ways of moving people.”
Funding such projects, Orseno said, is an issue everywhere.
As much as the groundbreaking was celebrated, the eventual ribbon-cutting ceremony will likely be more appreciated.
“There’s no question,” O’Dekirk said. “That people will be happy when that station is done.”