In 2005, the city of Danville had a problem. A century-old viaduct that permitted traffic on a vital east-west artery to flow beneath six tracks of busy railway lines had, by engineering standards, structurally failed. While the infrastructure remained operational, alarming deformations in the viaduct walls called for immediate action.
The highway in question, named Fairchild Street, connected the city’s center, its hospital and high school with the Indiana state line, Interstate 74 and Illinois Route 1. Fairchild is the only east-west route across town that is uninterrupted by at-grade crossings, so closing it would mean traffic — including ambulances and police — would be gravely impeded. At the same time, upwards of 85 trains per day crossed the community, many of them over the aging viaduct. As a major railroad intersection, with tracks serving CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway entering town from different directions, rerouting trains was equally impossible.
On top of all that, Danville did not have adequate funding to maintain its existing transportation network, let alone create new infrastructure.
“We recognize that as a community of 33,000, we are limited in some of our resources, whether that be financial or physical,” said Mayor Scott Eisenhauer.
The viaduct was stabilized, and then the process of replacing it commenced.
“We began by interacting with the public, and the public helped us decide what would be best,” said R. David Schnelle, P.E., S.E., Danville’s director of engineering and urban services and a key leader in the Fairchild Overpass project. He emphasized that nothing was assumed or taken for granted in the city’s evaluation of the best possible way to resolve the problem.
“We recognized, through public conversation, some of the challenges with that type of (underpass) structure going into the future,” Eisenhauer said. “People felt less safe, from a pedestrian perspective, using an underground tunnel versus an overpass. And it was important, as we moved forward, to include that input, because we were changing from what we had done for a hundred years. Change is always difficult.”
Just as difficult was the funding issue.
“The thing that drove this, as far as making it implementable, was the mayor leading the city council in passing a bond issue to start the project,” Schnelle noted. “Without that seed money in place, we would never have gotten the project off the ground. It gave us engineering plans that were ready-to-build, and we were able to clear right-of-ways, all of which we were able to show to the granting agencies. That was the absolute key.”
Once the requested $3 million bond was approved, city workers leveraged the seed capital into federal and state funding access via the National Environmental Policy Act.
“We used $2 million of the $3 million bond to pay for design engineering, while we served as the project manager. The city did the construction engineering, which is overseeing the day-to-day actual construction activities. That generated $900,000 in savings,” Schnelle elaborated.
The project tapped funds from the Illinois Commerce Commission Grade Crossing Protection Fund, through the Illinois Legislature via the “Jobs Now” construction funding program; and from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“This was a $23 million dollar project that came in on time, under budget and with no local tax dollars utilized in the construction,” Eisenhauer said. “And there’s no question that the initial cost of the project was offset because we were able to utilize our staff.” But, he said, what most need to understood is that the community ended up with a betterquality project, because “we were using staff members who were passionate and invested in the outcome of the project, versus using consultants who, at the end of the day, for them it was merely another job.”
Actual cost to the city, after reimbursement and funding through the various grants, was only $1 million.
Another key project consideration was the long-term cost, however.
“Too often, when you construct a public works project, you’re thinking about the cost as it relates to the construction only, and not the long-term maintenance,” Eisenhauer said. “So it was critical in early discussions of this project that we talk not only about how to construct it in a manner that is cost-effective for the budget we have, but also how are we going to maintain it using only the dollars that we have available to us through existing revenue sources?”
One example is the type of pavement put in, Schnelle explained.
“Rather than choosing a concrete pavement, we chose asphalt because it’s much cheaper and we can maintain it ourselves. Another example is the type of steel we chose, which is ‘weathering steel’ that does not require painting. In fact, it produces ‘rust’ that actually provides a protective coat. We also eliminated all bridge joints so water won’t be going through the structure, causing deterioration.”
In addition to creating a multi-modal railway overpass, the project enhanced boulevards and backslopes with environmentally beneficial landscaping. Robust tree plantings reduce greenhouse emissions and mitigate urban heat-island effects. Native plantings lower water demand and maintenance costs.
“Danville was an old industrial town, like many other old industrial towns around the country,” Eisenhauer reflected. “When those industries began closing and consolidating, the town lost its identity and really began seeing challenges. But the infrastructure projects have gone a long way towards re-imaging the community as more progressive and taking a great deal more pride in itself. So you see, these types of infrastructure projects are not only outstanding implements of transportation, but they also go a long way toward rebuilding civic pride.”
Completion of the Fairchild Overpass earned Danville an American Public Works Association Small Cities/Rural Communities Project of the Year Award in 2015.