Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Monday that it's giving Amtrak $404 million to expand high-speed rail service in the Midwest.
The money will go toward making upgrades along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor and to constructing new segments of 110 mph track between Chicago and Detroit.
Once completed, the two projects are expected to reduce travel times and improve safety.
The Chicago-to-Detroit enhancements are expected to shave 30 minutes off of passenger travel times between the two destinations, and the government claims the construction phase of the project will create 1,000 jobs.
The money was part of $2 billion originally earmarked for high-speed rail links between Tampa and Orlando, Florida.
But Florida Governor Rick Scott canceled the project earlier this year, making the money available to be used in other parts of the nation.
The Department of Transportation targeted rail projects in 15 states to receive the additional funds. 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak had all applied for the dollars.
The largest share of the money - nearly $800 million - will be used to upgrade train speeds from 135 mph to 160 mph on critical segments of the heavily traveled Northeast corridor.
"The investments we're making today will help states across the country create jobs, spur economic development and boost manufacturing in their communities," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Advocates of high-speed rail are scheduled to go to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield on May 19th to lobby state officials to support enhanced passenger rail service in the state.
The University of Illinois has scrapped a proposal to build a single wind turbine on the Urbana campus' South Farms site, citing the project's rising cost and its negative response from area residents.
The Board of Trustees' Audit, Budget, Finance and Facilities Committee chose not to advance the proposal, so it won't be voted on by the full board.
First introduced in 2003, the project has evolved over the last year, going from three wind turbines to only one. Earlier this year, the U of I sought an additional $700,000 for the project, bringing the overall cost to more than $5 million.
U of I spokesman Tom Hardy said the university will work with sustainability groups on the Urbana campus to come up with other energy projects.
"I think it's just a matter of going back and identifying those that can fit within a certain budget, and don't have a community impact that this one had," Hardy said.
Most of the funding for the wind turbine would have been supported by the university, with an additional $2 million dollars coming from a grant awarded by the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation The foundation said the grant will not be available if the wind turbine isn't built, but an official with the organization said the project's termination shouldn't affect future grant applications submitted by the U of I.
Kevin Wolz with the Student Sustainability Committee said he hopes funds reserved for the wind turbine support other environmental efforts, like campus composting, solar technology, and native landscaping.
"There is probably nothing we can do that can achieve the same symbolism that that turbine would have for campus sustainability in our movement," Wolz said. "That indeed will be the most difficult thing to replace.
UI Faculty Senate Votes to Keep Institute of Aviation
In a narrow 57-to-54 vote, members of the University of Illinois' Faculty Senate rejected a proposal Monday to close the Institute of Aviation located at Willard Airport in Savoy.
The city of Chicago has launched a program that officials say will help the taxi industry buy hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles.
Mayor Richard Daley announced the program on Friday, the same day as Earth Day. It's called the Green Taxi Program and the goal is to help the city reach lower carbon emission goals. It also aims to passengers trips in environmentally sustainable vehicles.
A federal Clean Cities grant will fund the program. The program will use $1 million to reimburse the cost of certain green vehicles.
Hybrids will be reimbursed $2,000 and propane-powered vehicles can qualify for between $9,000 and $14,000. Eletric vehicles don't qualify.
Disappointment today at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, as the museum was snubbed in its bid to host one of the retiring space shuttles.
The Adler piped the NASA announcement live into its 3-D Universe Theater. The assembled crowd offered polite applause as the winning institutions were announced: museums in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, DC and Florida.
Adler president Paul Knappanberger offered congratulations, though said he was a bit perplexed by the New York museum's success. He says it's a missed opportunity for the planetarium.
"A shuttle would have been a game changer, I think," he told reporters. "It's a national treasure, it's an icon of American achievement. I don't think any other artifact approaches that icon status."
The Adler is expected to get one of those other artifacts as a consolation prize -- the shuttle flight simulator used to train NASA astronauts. It's reportedly three stories tall and replicates the shuttle's crew compartment. Knappenberger called it the "next best thing," and said the museum will likely build a new enclosure to hold it.
Knappenberger says the failed shuttle campaign was funded almost completely with donated money and services.
(Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Space Center/Wikimedia Commons)
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.
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