Rebuilding Rockford

Capital Improvement Program backbone of putting city back on the map for commerce

By Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

The recent closure of the 3rd Street bridge was an eye-opener for many residents of Rockford, but it was just another part of the job for the city’s engineering chief Matthew Vitner.

“We want to promote three basic tenets across the board when it comes to infrastructure projects,” said Vitner during a sit down interview. “Number one is public safety; number two is to maintain and promote commerce and economic opportunity; and number three is to create a sense of well-being for our citizens.

“In the case of the 3rd Street bridge, truck traffic was restricted already and that made it a public safety risk as the fire department was unable to use it.”

The city’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan includes many areas of focus of which the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) is just one, and deteriorating roadways are a high priority on the list for funds to flow to.

“We’ve been able to leverage millions in state and federal funds,” said City Administrator Jim Ryan. “This is one of the largest CIP programs in the state and it’s an exciting plan.”

Rockford has been able to in recent years shift core funding of the CIP away from the city’s general fund, lessening the use of bond measures and instead relying on sales tax and the state motor fuel tax for the bulk of funding.

“By rolling over funds from past years and utilizing state funds and other available resources we’ve been able to create value for the city,” says Vitner.

The city was able to carry over nearly $18.5 million from the 2014 budget to apply to this year’s projects. Current estimates provided in the 2015-2019 CIP plan have nearly $90 million available over the next five years, with only $12.5 million coming from the city’s general fund.

“Instead of just bonding out and increasing the debt load–there will be some bond but it will be reduced,” Vitner said, “we can improve the infrastructure by using federal and state tax credits and funding programs.”

State funds were frozen for the month of March as part of Governor Bruce Rauner’s budget agenda. Both Vitner and Ryan said they don’t expect the freeze to be an on-going issue but Ryan admits the governor has not been forthcoming with information.

“We’ve not had any further communication with the governor’s office,” said Ryan. “We don’t know if they plan to extend the fuel tax cuts or not.”

Collaborative efforts

Vitner points to the plans to develop the former Turner School, at the corner of 10th Street and Broadway, into a police substation via the River Edge Redevelopment Zone program as an advantageous use of state programs.

“The plan works in concert with geopolicing projects to try and improve public safety,” he said. “By geographically locating them to where they can respond and serve better they can improve their service to the community.

“The Turner School project will be using historic tax credits and it  was brought into the River Edge zone to make that possible,” he continued, “so the city can take advantage of state funds and lessen the load on itself.”

Ryan reiterated that such public safety concerns go into the development of every project. He says the 3rd Street bridge area, including the Whitman Street bridge, 9th and 6th Streets and Highway 251, is a project the city is looking at extensively.

“Much of that interchange is overbuilt,” says Ryan. “We’re working toward converting 2nd and 3rd Streets to two-way traffic. Right now, the southbound ramp on 2nd Street has a high rate of accidents. Re-purposing that as a two-way street would lower the rate of accidents and allow Highway 251 to remain continuous instead of being split into one-way roadways.”

Vitner and Ryan also emphasized converting  9th Street into a two-way roadway as a point of emphasis, allowing emergency vehicles easier access to the nearby community and creating a better neighborhood traffic flow.

But, as Ryan says, it’s important not to stick another bandage on what has become a broken arm in Rockford’s infrastructure.

“Under a couple different circumstances we can eliminate acres of asphalt and remove a couple bridges that will make it more sustainable.”

He draws back to the failed plans that would have seen Interstate 90 pass through the downtown area: “That whole interchange was built for a highway that was never built,” Ryan said. “So we don’t look at the redesign as a 5 or 10 year plan but more a 40 year plan.”

Vitner says that the 3rd Street bridge isn’t the only area of immediate concern for the Public Works Department.  “There’s about 14 others like (3rd Street),” he said, “so in this plan for this year we’re emphasizing areas like the Alpine Road culverts near State Street. We’re looking at areas adjacent to the (Route 20) bypass.”

Vitner says the current CIP focuses on routes that carry truck traffic as they impact business directly, not just in terms of semis and other large loads but because they carry the vast majority of passenger vehicle traffic in the area as well.

Ryan added, “The culverts on Alpine are both big priorities due to the commerce and emergency vehicle access they provide. We have to weigh that as opposed to a residential street which carries less traffic.”

Striking a balance

Striking a balance in the overall project is vital to the economic future of the city according to Vitner. “We’ve got the River Edge zone and the Enterprise Zone–we got an $8 million grant and that’s where you see something like the outdoor market come out of to help bring people downtown and to reactivate the downtown space.”

He says working in conjunction with local business owners is crucial to implementing the overall plan as developing projects concurrently can bring a quicker and bigger payoff for citizens and the area as a whole.

“The more foot traffic you get, the more businesses grow, the more the commercial and retail side grows.

“When you have that you see the percentage of residential space in areas such as downtown come back into a proper ratio.”

Having local developers work in concert with the CIP will produce better results for the community, Vitner feels, and he said he hopes that local business owners will take advantage of similar state tax credits that the city is using to help speed redevelopment of Rockford.

Ryan agrees and feels that Vitner has helped the city take great strides toward its goals.

“Matt has done a fantastic job,” he said. “He has a great construction background and just gets it when it comes to the relationship between core infrastructure needs and how it relates to investment.”

But the physical changes aren’t the only image overhauls Rockford needs, says Vitner. “The city is doing a great job to create value and promote itself,” he says, “but we need to do a better job promoting ourselves. We concentrate too much on the negative images, on the negative stories. We need to show people that Rockford is a place to come, that it’s a place on the move, and we need to promote ourselves in the right way to reach those goals.

“The people here understand what happened to Rockford, and if you start out with a negative you’ve already handicapped yourself,” he says.

“We should be out saying Rockford is the best place to live in Illinois because we have real value here, we’re making real changes. People take it for granted how much the city has to offer.”

But he feels the CIP can help bring those positive images back to Rockford and help rejuvenate a area that has been downtrodden economically for years.

“I feel like I’m not just the engineer for the city,” he says, “because we work with the city manager and the mayor to promote an overall philosophy to bring change.

“The Capital Improvement Plan is just one part of that.”

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