Illinois Public Media News
The federal stimulus program was lucrative for the University of Illinois, but less so for government agencies in Champaign County.
A report from the county regional planning commission says more than $162 million in stimulus funding rolled into the county in 2009. But nearly $96 million of that was for the U of I, mainly for research projects according to commission planner Susan Chavarria. $16 million of the total was for infrastructure projects, mostly road construction and improvements.
Chavarria says it's hard to compare whether Champaign County got more or less than other areas of the state or nation. "Smaller communities and smaller counties, they usually don't have the resources to go through the application processes or to take the time to look for the funding sources," Chavarria said. "So in terms of our ability to do that, I think that we have perhaps received more than some of the other downstate counties. For the $546 million that we asked for, our expectations were we'll take what we can get, so I think we've received a fair amount of funding here."
Chavarria says even the U of I assistance indirectly benefits the community in the jobs it ensures for researchers and students. She says stimulus assistance to the county also came in the form of government contracts and business loans.
Three people killed in a nine-vehicle crash on Interstate 57 have been identified as Mississippi women traveling to Illinois' Amish country.
Coles County Coroner Ed Schniers says the women killed Monday just north of Mattoon were: 61-year-old Sheila Douglas of Batesville, Miss.; her mother, 80-year-old Juanita Hall of Sarah, Miss.; and family friend Doris Mayo, who was 68 and also lived in Sarah.
Police say another of Hall's daughters, 58-year-old Anne Faust of Sardis, Miss., remains hospitalized.
Friend Angelisa Weaver of Sardis says the four were driving to the Amish country that's about 15 miles north of Mattoon.
State Police say 12 other people were injured when a big rig crashed into cars slowing for construction.
Signs will soon go up along streets leading into Urbana that tell people their bicycles are welcome.
The purple signs recognize Urbana's new designation as a bike-friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists.
Public Works Director Bill Grey says the signs send an important message.
"It does send a message that this is a town that is accommodating bicycling as a mode of transportation", says Grey. And we're implementing the facilities to do so, and the education and enforcement that go along with that. And encouragement of people to want to get out of their cars , or seek this as a viable mode of transportation."
City councilman and avid cyclist Charlie Smyth says the designation is important for Urbana because of the estimated 8 percent of city residents who use bikes to get to work. Smyth says that's according to the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission. And he says it's important for the city to upgrade its designation from bronze to silver-level. Smyth says that will require more and better bicycle education programs in Urbana --- and better connections between bike paths.
Champaign has not been named a Bicycle Friendly Community --- but the League of American Bicyclists did name Champaign city government a Bicycle Friendly Business.
The bicycling community in Champaign-Urbana hopes to start commuters on a new habit Tuesday morning.
"CU Bike to Work Day" has attracted about 500 people who have signed up to receive a t-shirt and pledge to ride their bike instead of drive. Rick Langlois of the group Champaign County Bikes says the group is now out of shirts, but it still expects lots of unregistered riders to take part too.
He says the goal of the event is to encourage more bicyclists to overcome their worries and take to the streets. Langlois says some are concerned about safety, which is why his group advocates bike lanes for a little more peace of mind.
"Bike lanes are very much an effort to assist those less comfortable or average adult riders feel more comfortable," said Langlois. "A bike lane is not a magic force field and it doesn't keep somerone from being struck by a vehicle, but it does designate a space where a bicyclist is expected to be."
But Langlois also reminds drivers that bicyclists also have the right to use a traffic lane in areas without bike lanes.
He says the bike group is also collecting information on bicycle use for planners in Champaign and Urbana as they consider infrastructure in the years ahead.
UPDATE: The Champaign City Council approved the intergovernmental agreement on the Olympian Drive study Tuesday night, on a 6 to 2 vote.
A standing-room-only crowd filled the Urbana City Council chamber Monday night as the Urbana City Council voted unanimously in favor of an intergovernmental agreement on a design engineering study on the Olympian Drive extension.
Council members listened to input from dozens of people on both sides of the issue. Opponents say the road would destroy farmland, and contribute to urban sprawl. Supporters say it would spur economic development. One of the latter was Vice President Steve Brewer of the East Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council. He says unemployed building and construction workers need the jobs that building Olympian Drive would provide. And Brewer siad the community needs the Olympian Drive extension in order to grow.
"I believe that the only conscionable thing to do is to plan for future generations, and this road does that", said Brewer.
Monday night's vote approves the use of a 5-million dollar state grant to pay for the design engineering study, and also land acquisition for Olympian Drive. But land acquisition will be delayed, because it would need the cooperation of the Champaign County Board, which has delayed a vote on the issue until next year. Mayor Laurel Prussing says the city of Urbana will focus on the design engineering study first.
Urbana will also do its own study on improvements to North Lincoln Avenue in connection with the Olympian Drive extension --- plus a risk analysis on both the North Lincoln and Olympian Drive projects. Supporters of Olympian Drive say the road extension needs an upgraded North Lincoln Avenue to link to I-74. Opponents agree --- they say with North Lincoln improved for heavy traffic, Olympian Drive wouldn't need to go all the way out to Route 45. But North Lincoln Avenue isn't mentioned in the intergovernmental agreements to study Olympian Drive. Mayor Laurel Prussing says Urbana will have to study North Lincoln on its own.
"North Lincoln Avenue is something that Urbana needs to do", says Prussing, "and I think it going to be more trouble than it's worth to try to include it in the $5 million study, because we'd have to get our partners to agree to it. I think this is really an Urbana study.
The Urbana City Council will look at ways to study North Lincoln Avenue --- and also do a risk analysis of the Olympian Drive project --- later in the spring. Mayor Prussing says she hopes the state-funded Olympian Drive study can start later this year.
The Urbana and Champaign City Councils vote this week on a three-party intergovernmental agreement to begin design engineering work on the extension of Olympian Drive along the north edge of the two cities But the Champaign County Board --- which is also a party to the agreement --- will not be
Chairman Pius Weibel says a county board vote on Olympian Drive is unlikely this year, because of opposition on the board, especially among Republicans. Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing says she hopes to change some county board minds --- especially now that the design engineering study will include proposed upgrades for North Lincoln Avenue connecting Olympian Drive to I-74.
"I know that the Republicans had said they weren't going to support it" says Prussing, "but I know one Republican that said he would support it with Lincoln Avenue. So you never know. I just think it's an education process."
County Board Republican Greg Knott says the Lincoln Avenue part is important --- but he wants to be sure there's enough money on hand. Local officials have not yet secured all the money they need to finance the Olympian Drive extension. Knott says he wonders if the state and federal governments can come through on the money they've promised so far.
"Let's be honest", says Knott. "State's broke, the Feds are broke. We don't have anywhere close to getting this money. Show me the money, and then I might be interested in taking a vote.."
Prussing says they do have the state money for the design engineering part of the Olympian Drive project --- if they act this month. She says county board approval isn't needed right now. But it will be, when it comes time to buy up land along the highway extension route.
The State of Illinois is out with an ambitious long range plan for road construction, even amid uncertainty over future funding.
The state wants to spend $5 billion on roads and bridges over the next year. That's nearly double what was outlined in recent plans.
The projects range from new roads, to repairs and efforts to ease traffic congestion.
Illinois AFL-CIO President Mike Carrigan says it will also put people to work.
"When people work, those paychecks go into local banks and it helps those local economies", says Carrigan. "In turn, those local economies help the state economy."
Illinois expects to use a mix of funding for the projects, much of it from the federal government this year. Beyond that, the state would also rely on proceeds from the new video gambling law. But many communities don't want to participate, and that could greatly reduce the amount of money available for infrastructure. Governor Pat Quinn says he's not worried.
"We have ample money in the first several years of our plan here to pay for everything", says Quinn. "I think we can carry forward whatever the case may be."
The Governor calls the road plan "fair", all regions of Illinois will have projects funded.
The Urbana City Council gave its unanimous endorsement Monday night to intergovernmental agreements that would launch the design engineering phase of the Olympian Road extension. If finalized next week, Urbana would be one step closer to using 5 million dollars in state funds to pay for the design work.
The vote came after Urbana council members heard from dozens of local residents. Some, including business and government leaders, say the extension would help spur commercial development on Urbana's north side, providing tax revenue and jobs. But a majority of speakers said they feared the road would encourage urban sprawl at the expense of farmland. Mayor Laurel Prussing says the city will consider their concerns during a public engagement process that will accompany the design engineering process.
"We will listen to what everybody has to say and we will redesign the plan as necessary", says Prussing. "But we are concerned that in order to have parks, in order to have schools, in order to have a decent way of life, you do have to have a healthy tax base."
But William Cope, one of the organizers of Olympian Drive opponents says lack of support on the Champaign County Board could stop the project from getting beyond the planning phase.
"You know, the project won't happen, without the county board's involvement and support", says Cope. "And therefore, they're against it at the moment. It's unlikely it will happen, so it could well be $5 million just wasted."
The $ 5 million is state funding that's been guaranteed for this phase of work on Olympian Drive. Part of it would pay for acquisition of land for the road --- which would need Champaign County Board approval. But county board support for Olympian Drive has been so weak that a vote on the issue has been delayed until next year.
Urbana Council members amended their Olympian Drive resolution to add in design work on North Lincoln Avenue. Those improvements would allow truck traffic between Olympian Drive and I-74. While North Lincoln is considered crucial to Olympian Drive's success, it's not actually part of the 27 million dollar project.
A rural mass transit system serving Vermilion County hopes to be providing its service to some rural Champaign county cities by the fall.
The Champaign County Board's committee of the whole approved the plan from CRIS Rural Transit this week. The buses in Vermilion County have run based on appointment for 25 years, and are open to anyone on weekdays. CRIS Rural Transit is a branch of the CRIS Healthy Aging Center. CEO Amy Marchand says she came before the Champaign County Board based on responses to surveys and her appearances at village meetings. She says many have come to rely on their buses each day.
"Some people use it to go to dialysis treatment two or three times a week," says Marchand. "Some people use it to take classes at a college. Some people use it to just have regular doctor's appointments. There's a group from a senior high rise that go to Wal-Mart once a week to buy their groceries." The CRIS buses are partially funded through federal funds. Marchand also says a small percentage of local sales tax goes to downstate funding for mass transit, but it's currently distributed elsewhere since Champaign County doesn't provide the service.
County Board member Steve Moser opposes the plan, contending that more taxes, including property tax, would be needed to pay for the service. He also says CRIS buses would duplicate what's provided by the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission. But the agency's Darlene Kloeppel says it may let CRIS replace its Rural Rider program, which serves solely senior citizens, if it can help most of its clients. Kloeppel says there are other bus providers in rural Champaign County, but no one will be forced to end their service. "If people don't want to continue to provide service, or if they're able to do it more efficiently in another way, they certainly can do that as well. That's why this is a good thing, because it gives people options."
If the County Board approves the plan April 22nd, CRIS would apply for the service in July, and Illinois' Department of Transportation would have to approve the plan. The initial towns served would be Rantoul, Thomasboro, and Ludlow.
The debate over the Olympian Drive extension will continue at an Urbana City Council committee-of-the-whole meeting in three weeks. Council members have put off a decision on a state-funded design engineering study for the road. It would be just the latest phase in a long-standing project that Mayor Laurel Prussing says would bring economic development --- and jobs --- to the north edge of the city. But opponents like Bill and Virginia Ziegler (left) and Leslie Cooperbrand (right) argue it would do more harm than good. AM 580's Jim Meadows reports on the Olympian Drive debate.
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