Illinois Public Media News
Gov. Pat Quinn says the state has to spend money to ensure Illinois has safe roads and bridges.
Quinn on Thursday announced the latest update to the state road program that includes improving more than 3,200 miles of roads and replacing or repairing 611 bridges over the next six years.
He says the timing of the announcement was tied to a law that requires the state to announce its long-term road program.
Construction costs are estimated at $11.5 billion for the extensive list of projects. Money for the road program will come from federal, state and local funds.
The governor's office estimates the construction projects will create about 155,000 jobs. And Quinn says such projects are a good way to get Illinois' economy back on track.
As the U.S. electric car market gears up this year, utility company Ameren is showing off one of the models.
Company spokesman Leigh Morris says its 17-day test drive of Mitsubishi's i-MiEV is intended to show that the utility is prepared to handle charging for either all-electric cars as well as hybrids. He says the utility will provide free electric upgrades needed to charge the vehicle, like a new transformer in the home.
The I-MiEV is aimed at the European market, but a similar model is expected to arrive in the U.S. this fall, and has a maximum driving range of about 85 miles. Morris says Ameren is also showing off the car to give the consumer some options:
"This type of a vehicle is probalby ideally suited for somebody who does a lot of urban-type driving," he said. "Because you're not going to get in it and drive to St. Louis. It has that limitation of the 85 miles. The fact of the matter is, an all-electric car is not going to be suited for everybody."
Morris said Ameren Illinois plans to purchase four plug-in hybrid bucket trucks of its own soon.
"We're also going to be test-driving the (Chevy) Volt as well as the Nissan Leaf," he said. "And I would not be surprised if down the road as become vehicles become available, if we don't try those out as well. This is all a learning curve for everybody. I think we're really at the birth of the electric car."
The I-Miev charges with a 120-volt outlet for about 12 hours, but consumers can purchase higher-voltage charging stations. Ameren is taking the electric car to 16 cities in its market over the next couple of weeks, including Champaign-Urbana, Peoria, Decatur, and the St. Louis area.
The next phase of construction on a high-speed rail route between Chicago and St. Louis will begin next month, a high-stakes transportation project similar to those that other states have rebuffed, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced Tuesday.
"Illinois has always been a strong railroad state and we always will be," Quinn said at an Amtrak rail yard near downtown Chicago.
Quinn and Durbin took swipes at other states for turning back money for high-speed rail, including Florida, which rejected $2.4 billion that had been earmarked for rail projects in that state because new Republican Gov. Rick Scott was worried taxpayers could get socked with the bill for any overruns and operating subsidies. Illinois has said it will try to get a part any money that other states return.
"The governors of these other states that have given up their money can stand by and wave at our trains when they go by. We're going to move people, we're going to freight, we're going to set a standard for America. It starts right here in Chicago," Durbin said.
But not everybody in Illinois is gung-ho about fast trains. Freshman Congressman Joe Walsh said the government can't afford to spend the money and he doubted their cost effectiveness because Americans love their cars. He said governors like Scott in Florida had the right idea by giving up federal money for rail projects.
"I respect the governors who have done that, that clearly is not what Pat Quinn is about," Walsh, whose district is in northern Illinois.
Illinois' other senator, Republican U.S. Mark Kirk, supports high speed rail including federal funding and believes it should be a private-public partnership so that trains move with the speed and reliability to serve consumers who would otherwise would fly, Kirk spokesman Lance Trover said.
When high-speed trains are eventually traveling up to 110 mph, the trip between St. Louis and Chicago could be cut by 90minutes to less than four hours.
Illinois has been awarded $1.2 billion in federal money to expand passenger rail and the state has promised to kick in another $42 million. Last year, Quinn and Durbin debuted the first $98 million in upgrades to a 90-mile stretch of track from Alton, just northeast of St. Louis, to Lincoln for the high-speed route.
The latest $685 million section of the construction project is scheduled to start April 5 and includes building new rail track using concrete ties between Dwight and Lincoln and between Alton and the Mississippi River. A modernized signal system will also be installed between Dwight and Alton, Quinn's office said. Officials estimate the work would create more than 6,000 direct and indirect jobs, such as construction and manufacturing work. Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said job numbers are typically devised using formulas based on the amount of money being spent on a project.
Trains traveling at 110 mph on the 284-mile Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor could debut between Dwight and Pontiac as early as next year, Quinn's office said. Upgrades to the Dwight-Alton portion of the corridor are expected to be finished by 2014.
The Champaign County Board has ended its long-running debate on Olympian Drive.
On a 19-to-7 vote, board members settled on a plan to connect the dead-end road north of Champaign with Lincoln Avenue in Urbana, where it connects with Interstate-74. Two weeks after rejecting a 'green' option, the Board approved a 'purple' configuration of North Lincoln expected to have less of an impact on residents, cutting diagonally through property owned by Squire Farms.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing praised the board's diligence after backing the Olympian project herself for years.
"This has thoroughly discussed," she said. "There's people around the world that want democracy. I don't know if they realize how exhausting it is, but certainly it's a better system that people have ever come up with. And I think the county board really took this seriously. And they studied it, and I think they've come to a conclusion."
Thirteen Democrats and six Republicans supported the project. Five of the seven 'no' votes came from rural Republicans, as well as Champaign Democrats Pattsi Petrie and Alan Kurtz.
The plan was approved with an amendment offered by Urbana Democrat James Quisenberry, who wanted to ensure the design didn't move any further south and east, where it could impact other residents.
"The property owners that the road goes right next to are the ones that are going to be most affected," Quisenberry said. "And they didn't really want the road there in the first place, but now that it's going there, we have to make sure they're protected as much as we can."
Prussing said the city will still work with individual landowners to alleviate any concerns as the project moves forward. She said anyone losing land will be paid for it by Champaign County or the city of Urbana, but those that do not agree would require govermment use of eminent domain for property.
The Olympian Drive portion of the project is expected to be built in 2013, with the stretch of Lincoln Avenue to be finished in 2015. The entire project is estimated at nearly $20-million, paid for through Illinois Jobs Now funding, the state motor fuel tax, and federal funds.
Officials at the Mitsubishi Motors North America plant in central Illinois say they have enough parts to keep making cars for another two weeks but they're awaiting word on whether Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami could lead to production disruptions.
Mitsubishi Motors North America spokesman Dan Irvin told The (Bloomington) Pantagraph that the production hubs of the firm's parent company, Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Motors, weren't affected by the disaster.
But Irvin says the North American subsidiary is still waiting for updates from companies that supply some parts for use at the plant in Normal.
The plant produces about 34,000 vehicles a year and employs more than 1,000 people.
After a long and bitter debate, a partial deal has been reached to continue expansion of O'Hare International Airport.
It took the federal government to mediate negotiations between the City of Chicago and United and American Airlines, the biggest carriers at O'Hare. For now, the newly announced $1.17 billion dollar agreement funds parts of the O'Hare Modernization Program, including rerouting roads and installing a runway on the airport's South Side.
The airlines had long said that O'Hare isn't busy enough to warrant an expansion, but United CEO Jeff Smisek says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood helped changed his mind.
"Do we need this runway today? Of course not. But we do believe that with time, we will and we're willing to help fund our portion," Smisek said.
When asked what the city gave up to move negotiations forward, Mayor Richard Daley would only say, "I'm not gonna mention it."
Negotiations over the rest of the expansion are expected to resume in two years.
UI Holds Forum on Proposed Cuts to Institute of Aviation
The University of Illinois held a public forum Tuesday night to get feedback about a budget recommendation to break up the 65-year-old Institute of Aviation.
Events Friday tied to the Unofficial St. Patrick's Day brought in a large amount of people to East Central Illinois...thanks in part to the social networking website, Facebook.
Extra police officers from Champaign, Urbana, and the University of Illinois campus were stationed around the community to prevent major disruptions and maintain public safety. There were 364 people who received court appearance notices for charges related to indecent behavior and public intoxication, and more than half of those cases were people who lived outside the Champaign-Urbana area.
While these figures are up from 2010 and 2009, Urbana Police Lieutenant Robert Fitzgerald said he thinks his department did a great job during the night.
"The police departments were all out there in force to make sure that everyone was safe," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think we could change much in the next year than what we did this year."
Meanwhile, a University of Illinois student who was struck by two vehicles over the weekend has died. According to the Champaign County coroner's office, 21-year-old Bradley Bunte passed away late Monday morning. He had been in critical condition since late Friday night, when an eastbound van clipped him at University and McCullough in Urbana. Bunte was then run over by a second vehicle. He was a Champaign native and a sports reporter for the Daily Illini.
Urbana Police are not saying at this point if the incident was connected to the Unofficial St. Patrick's Day celebrations.
Students, instructors, and graduates of the University of Illinois' Institute of Aviation say administrators want to close a valuable program at a time when it's needed most.
About 80 of them Thursday discussed an industry that stands to lose about 37,000 pilots in the U.S. alone over the next 10 years. U of I Graduate Nathan Butcher is now a Delta pilot. He said there's a decline in training overall, and many pilots are nearing their mandatory retirement age. Butcher said administrators have a very narrow view of the Institute, which is turning out more than pilots.
"The Institute of Aviation is a long standing center for excellence in the field of professional pilot training, aviation research, and aviation safety advancements," he said. "Unfortunately, the university's administration defines the Institute of Aviation's role as being very technical and only worth of trade school status. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Willard Airport Tower Air Traffic Controller Kevin Gnagey said two thirds of his workforce is nearing retirement age, and that the Institute generates 85% of the traffic they direct at Willard. Gnagey contends the U of I is also throwing away the chance for future research on airport grounds.
"I would also be so bold as to assert that losing the Institute of Aviation could pose a large loss to the University of Illinois," he said. "This loss may not be immediately evident, but as the FAA is investing billions of dollars into research and development in new technology for the next generation of the national airspace system, opportunities would be lost."
Instructor and U of I graduate Joseph McElwee said while no decision has been made, he says administrators are trying to make closing the institute easier by moving remaining faculty to other academic units, and denying Fall 2011 admission to new applicants.
"They say that no decision has been made, so we don't have to bargain with your VAP's (Vistiing Academic Professionals)," McElwee said. "But at the same time, if you think about this, it's just an academic institution. And so the backbone of this is the students. And if we don't have students, there's no one to teach."
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the recommendation to close the facility came after evaluating competing interests of students, faculty, and the public, and determining that closing the Institute and discontinuing degree programs were in the best interests of the Urbana campus. She also cites declining enrollment at the Institute in the past decade, noting it had 176 applicants in 2002, admitting 119, and 65 freshman enrolled. In 2010, the Institute had 112 applicants, admitting 65 and 34 enrolled.
A hearing on the Institute's future will be held Tuesday before Urbana campus Senate. The plan must also go before the U of I's Board of Trustees and the State Board of Higher Education.
Champaign County Board members have narrowly rejected a plan to extend Olympian Drive to Lincoln Avenue.
Tuesday night's 13-to-10 committee of the whole vote followed another backing the long-debated extension of Olympian itself. But opponents felt plans for the 'green route' or north-south 'S' curve connecting Lincoln to Olympian would impact too many landowners, with no guarantee the route would lure industry. Republican Alan Nudo favors further research, with those residents involved.
"I'm all for Urbana having commercial-industrial in this area, because that's what it's going to be," Nudo said. "It's in a mile and a half, and I think it's a fait accompli. But we need to take care of the residents in there, and do it right."
Nudo said a new phase of research will provide options, and enable for compromise.
Democrat Tom Betz said it is hard to disagree with those arguments and side with economic interests, but he supported the plan.
"We are creating an artery, and method by which development can take place," Betz said. "But I think it is more likely to happen as a result of this than if we do nothing. Right now, Olympian Drive kind of is a road to nowhere. The county needs some economic development. It's not just the city of Urbana."
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said she hasn't given up on the green option, and could return to the county board in two weeks. She said she wants to develop some cost estimates for an altered plan, but won't start over from scratch.
"We''ll modify what things cost, but we're not prepared to say 'we need to spend $170,000 (on a new study)," Prussing said. "What this is really - we can't find perfect. And sometimes, my philosophy is, you just gotta settle for excellent."
A study of options to the west would take 18 months. Champaign County Highway Engineer Jeff Blue said consultants can estimate the cost of some new alignments. But he said a new study should start by April, or the Olympian Drive project could risk losing the $15-million in state and federal money.
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