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Taxpayer tab for retooled roads around Obama Presidential Center: $175 million

Beau Wellington of TGR Design, shows the restructure of Jackson and South Shore parks in Chicago, on Wednesday Jan. 31, 2018. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

WASHINGTON — Chicago’s City Hall on Friday for the first time put a price tag on the cost to overhaul the roads in and around Jackson Park for the Obama Presidential Center and a related golf course merger: roughly $175 million, with potential funding sources to include the state of Illinois.

If funding from the financially frail Illinois government is to be a major source for paying for the Obama Center roadway work, it could emerge as a campaign issue in the race for governor and other down-ticket contests.

Last October, the Chicago Sun-Times reported how the Democratic leaders who control the Illinois General Assembly – House Leader Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton – were mapping plans to ask the state for more than $100 million to pay for road work related to the Obama Center.

The emergence of the price estimate for the road overhaul and underpasses came as the city also on Friday released the traffic study used to calculate the costs and it contains two key — and controversial — assumptions:

  • The traffic study backed the plan to dig up Cornell and Marquette drives as they run through Jackson Park; those proposals have sparked community protests.
  • The study helps set the stage for the merger of golf courses in Jackson and South Shore parks, a project that has yet to establish commercial or financial viability or to lock in private investors.

According to the traffic study, the following roadway segments within Jackson Park would be closed and converted into open space:

  • Cornell Drive between North Midway Plaisance and Hayes Drive
  • South Midway Plaisance between Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive
  • Marquette Drive between Stony Island Avenue and Richards Drive
  • Northbound Cornell Drive from 68th Street to where Cornell Drive becomes two-way
    (approximately midway between 64th Street and 65th Street)

City Hall said in a statement: “For funding, we are pursuing all potential options, including funding from the state of Illinois, which is a key partner for the region’s transportation system, and has jurisdiction over Lake Shore Drive and Cornell Drive.”

The future Obama Center complex will be in Jackson Park between the Midway Plaisance and 62nd Street.

Also in the study:

  • A parking analysis determined there would be a net loss of 236 on-street spaces around the Obama Center.
  • A claim that driving times would not increase substantially in the reconfigured traffic plan during peak driving hours.

Last week, I reported on how the Chicago Park District voted to go along with the road closures in and around Jackson Park related to the Obama Center development.
Negotiations were authorized to swap six acres of parkland the city needs to widen parts of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island for eight acres of reclaimed roadways to be turned into pedestrian paths and bikeways.

The information in the study, titled “Jackson Park Revitalization Traffic Impact Study Final Report” will be used to buttress the conclusion already reached by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Obama Foundation that the road closures are necessary.

The timing is no mystery. The Obama Foundation will hold a public meeting on Feb. 27 at McCormick Place to discuss the zoning application it filed with the city Jan. 10.

There is also a symposium on March 7 about the impact of the Obama Center and the South Side that will have a tougher audience than the Foundation event. The organizers of the session at the University of Chicago, 1020 East 58th St., said they will “address specific topics including the ceding of public parkland for the OPC; the implication of OPC-related roadwork to Chicago taxpayers; calls for a Community Benefits Agreement.”

The Chicago Plan Commission is tentatively expected to consider the application in April. Meanwhile, completion of an ongoing federal review of the impact of the Obama Center on landmarked Jackson Park that is months away.

Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Claffey noted that the state of Illinois has put out a lot of cash for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield since it opened in 2005: $100 million for construction plus annual operating subsidies totaling more than $120 million to date.

Obama Presidential Library

Map of location of proposed developments and roadway closures at the Obama Presidential Library | City of Chicago

Former President Barack Obama is raising the more than $500 million to construct and operate his presidential center. The Lincoln library and museum — a few miles from where Lincoln is buried in Springfield — obviously has a different financial model.

The Obama Center itself will not be a taxpayer-funded operation.