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Is a Houbolt Bridge groundbreaking coming soon?

A spring start date for Houbolt Road bridge not a sure thing yet

Plans for a Houbolt Road bridge and interchange cleared another hurdle when the state recently awarded more money for the project, although construction dates still are fuzzy.

The $190 million-plus, public-private venture should begin this year. Groundbreaking for a bridge crossing the Des Plaines River could be as early as spring, a target set in 2018.

The project is viewed as a partial solution to traffic congestion problems if it works as planned by channeling semitrailer traffic generated by the CenterPoint Intermodal Centers in Joliet and Elwood away from local roads and onto Interstate 80.

Some issues still need to be resolved for work to begin on the bridge. And the start date for widening Houbolt Road and building a new interchange at Interstate 80 already has been pushed back to fall.

Problems still to be settled include a lawsuit brought by the BNSF Railway and the price of tolls essential to paying for the bridge.

The city of Joliet recently resolved another problem over the cost of the public end of the venture when the state agreed to increase what it would pay for Houbolt Road and a new interchange to $32 million.

The original projections were that the road and interchange would cost $21 million.

“We actually thought when they came up with that number that it would be low,” Joliet interim City Manager Martin Shanahan told the City Council last week.

“That’s about a 33 percent increase from where we were,” Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said.

It took months for Joliet, which oversees engineering and construction for the road and interstate, to settle the newer and higher costs with the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The City Council last week approved an amendment to a city-state intergovernmental agreement that sets the cost for Houbolt Road and the interchange to reflect the new price of $32 million. But those months of discussion also set back the construction timetable.

Joliet now expects to open the project for bidding in September.

The project would be done by now if planners stuck with the timetable Gov. Bruce Rauner gave when he announced the project in July 2016.

At the time, Rauner estimated the bridge opening by late 2018 or early 2019.

Now, CenterPoint Properties targets groundbreaking for the bridge this spring, and that’s not definite.

“We are hoping so,” CenterPoint CEO Michael Murphy said when asked whether the spring construction date is still on. “We have a couple of things to do.”

One of those things, although Murphy would not say much about it, is resolving a federal lawsuit brought by BNSF Railway.

BNSF claims certain rights because the future bridge would cross over one of its railroads. The company also owns the BNSF Logistics Park in Elwood, which could be affected by the new truck route created by the bridge.

The lawsuit is said to be close to being settled, which could clear the way for construction.

CenterPoint representatives met with city officials last week. No construction date was set, although CenterPoint suggested it would issue a public statement on the topic later this month.

“I think we have a lot of momentum with Joliet, Will County and the state,” Murphy said.

Murphy said the project has support from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, which was evident in the state’s decision to cover the increased costs for the public end of the project. The entire $32 million is to be paid by the state.

CenterPoint estimates the bridge cost to be about $160 million.

However, CenterPoint still has not negotiated the toll rates it will charge for the bridge with Will County, which has the authority to set tolls for the bridge. Murphy said there is a general agreement that the tolls will be consistent with what’s charged by the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority on the state’s tollways.

Nick Palmer, chief of staff for Will County Executive Larry Walsh, said discussions so far have been preliminary.

Yet to be discussed, Palmer said, is whether the county may want a share of the tolls set aside for other infrastructure needs created by the increased amount of truck traffic in the area.

He noted that the tolls will have to be approved by the County Board.

“We need to hammer this out,” Palmer said. “If they come and say, ‘This is what it needs to be. Just sign off on that and rubber stamp it.’ I’m not sure the county is going to be OK with that.”

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