A century after the first horseless carriages puttered over Renwick Bridge, its facelift may finally be moving forward.
Now that state officials have struck a deal to buy the last of five private properties needed to break ground on the $9 million Renwick Bridge makeover, it seems the last roadblock to the 15-year-old project may be in the rear view mirror.
After years of bargaining, Illinois Department of Transportation negotiators struck a deal earlier this month to pay $495,000 for a house owned by Plainfield Township Highway secretary Mary Domanus, according to Will County records. The 1,500 square-foot home and surrounding grounds was assessed at $58,000 in 2010, county records show.
Representatives for IDOT, which is footing 80 percent of the cost to build the bridge and widen River Road, are responsible for negotiating with residents on acquisition price, not township officials. The Plainfield Township Highway Department and Will County cover the remaining 20 percent and oversee the project.
Domanus may have been the last holdout, and her employment with the highway commission certainly raised eyebrows as the renovation stalled year after year. But Domanus and her husband James were not the only local landowners who cashed in on sale prices much higher than their properties’ assessed valuations.
IDOT agreed to pay:
- $365,000 to John Fullington for 15904 S. River Road; assessed at $0;
- $180,000 to Bruce and Virginia Nelson for 15908 S. River Road; assessed at $2,597;
- $575,000 to Mike Bjekich for 24926 S. Renwick Road; assessed at $100,309;
- $355,000 to Donald L. Johnson, trustee of the Donald L. Johnson Trust, for 15836 S. River Road; assessed at $54,152.
Despite numerous phone calls last week, IDOT officials have not answered inquiries about the large differences between the prices they paid and the assessed property values.
Details for upgrading the historic one-lane bridge over the DuPage River, built in 1912 with limestone masonry abutments, have been bandied back and forth between village and township officials since 1990.
The rustic overpass, though cherished as a bridge Plainfield’s rural past by some residents, was fine for Model T motorists. But 100 years later, in the era of SUVs and trucks, it has aged into a feeble, outdated safety hazard.
The bridge has a four-ton load limit, but neighbors have reported scores of scofflaws. In 2005, a 36-ton semi did so much damage that the township highway commission had to close it for several months to make repairs. The cost of keeping the bridge open mounted even more in 2006 when Will County Sheriff Paul Kaupas paid five deputies to monitor the bridge daily for weight violations.
Plainfield police, turning back and ticketing three or four trucks every day in a recurrent traffic snarl, threatened to shut it down.
“I’m not trying to flex my authority,” Sgt. Kevin Greco (now a commander) told news reporters at the time. “It’s a safety issue.”
The village of Plainfield, Plainfield Township Highway Department, Will County and the Plainfield Park District, which owned land near the bridge at Mather Woods, drew up an intergovernmental agreement in which the township highway department, directed by Commissioner Sam Reichert, was named lead agency to make most of the building decisions. Initially designed to be a new bridge adjacent to the old one, the new concept evolved into a new structure and included a road-widening plan to straighten Renwick Road.
The village played a bigger role in the first phase of the project, completed in 2004. That work involved environmental and residential impact studies, traffic contrail analysis and identifying five surrounding properties and residences the township highway department, using IDOT’s checkbook, would need to buy.
“The village was a part of the early planning in looking at how this was going to affect people who lived there, how it would impact the environment and (how to) keep traffic moving smoothly and more efficiently,” said Plainfield Public Works Director Allen Persons, who has been involved with the project for more than 20 years. “After that, it was the township’s project. It was not our jurisdiction.”
But in 2004, the township-village partnership became entangled in a disagreement that ensued for five years. Village officials favored a railroad overpass for the EJ &E Railroad crossing at the bridge, envisioning a possible Metra-Star line overpass in the future. A separated grade crossing would be safer and move traffic faster, they said.
But Reichert and many residents in the Renwick Bridge neighborhood, who turned out en masse for a public hearing, thought a railway crossing at road level would be more in keeping with the rural aesthetic of the area. Besides, it would cost another $300,000 to revise the plans and another $3 million to build, according to project engineer Roger Wright, of Hutchinson Engineering.
To put some muscle behind its separated-grade stance, the village refused to hand over a parcel of land near Renwick Road and the tracks that the township would need to build the project. The stalemate ended in 2009, when a new mayor and trustees pushed for a compromise.
“The logic of trying to govern another agency was discussed,” Plainfield Mayor Michael Collins told local reporters at the time. “We don’t tell the school district how to build a school; we don’t tell the park district how to build a park.”
The village deeded over the land with the stipulation that the township break ground by 2013.
Crossing the last bridges
As two more years rolled by while IDOT haggled to buy property, some started to wonder if they would come in under deadline.
Wright said he hopes they might be able to break ground yet this fall. With the last deed in hand, IDOT officials hope to receive bids by August and have construction under way on Renwick Road between River and Drauden roads by October.
“We would like to have contractors working onsite by this fall,” Wright said.
Once started, it should take about two years to complete, officials say.
Reichert was not at the June township board meeting last week. He and secretary Mary Domanus did not return a call to comment on the last land purchase.
“I’m glad to see all the properties got purchased. There’s an urgent need in Plainfield Township to get this moving,” Township Supervisor John Argoudelis said. “It’s too bad it took so long to get it done.”
Whether or not the decade of delay will add to the bottom line has yet to be seen. There is some chance, Argoudelis said, that the current sour economy may spur more competitive contract bidding.
“If the township and its residents are happy with the plan, we’re just happy to see it move forward,” Persons said.