Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 03, 2011

Local Airports Cope As FAA Partial Shutdown Continues

Bids will be opened this Friday from contractors competing for a construction project at Willard Airport near Champaign, but any actual work will have to wait until Congress agrees on temporary financing for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA has been partially shut down since July 23. Congress took its August recess without resolving a dispute over the FAA, and won't be back in Washington until after Labor Day.

Willard Airport Director Steve Wanzek said he will work with the Illinois Department of Transportation's Division of Aeronautics to complete the necessary paperwork at the state and local level - in the hope that Congress will act quickly enough to allow the FAA to approve the project in September.

"We'll do all the paperwork, get all the grant application, all of that stuff through the state," Wanzek said. "You know, that takes a couple of weeks anyway. So we may lose a week or two --- assuming that if they (Congress) met on Labor Day, after Labor Day and take this on --- you know, something approved --- we would be able to be issued a grant fairly quickly."

Meanwhile, the Decatur Airport has already received federal funding for an upcoming ramp rehabilitation project, according to airport director Joe Atwood. He said FAA's partial shutdown will not prevent that project from going forward. But he said he will be watching activity in Washington when Congress returns in September

Atwood will also be keeping an eye on what Congress decides to do about the Essential Air Service program, which helps underwrite air passenger service at the Decatur Airport. Efforts in the Senate to restore FAA funding broke down Tuesday over a GOP proposal to cut money for that program.

The Essential Air Service program provides money to help airports in small cities attract and keep air service. The Decatur Airport is funded by the program, as are airports in Quincy and Marion.

Atwood said it is strange that the program is being debated now, because its funding isn't part of the federal budget.

"The money comes from the Aviation Trust Fund, and it doesn't affect the General Treasury," Atwood said. "It's not a general Treasury budget item. So even if they eliminate the program, they don't effectively eliminate the resulted expense from the treasury. They can cut the program out, they still haven't saved anything."

Atwood stresses that the debate in Congress over Essential Air Service funding is about the program as a whole, and doesn't focus on the Decatur Airport in particular.

The partial shutdown at the FAA does not affect air traffic controllers.

Both Atwood at the Decatur Airport and Wanzek at Willard Airport say their day-to-day operations will continue as usual.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 02, 2011

Quinn Won’t Take a Stand on Tollway Hikes

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn will not say whether he thinks the state tollway should increase rates.

The Illinois Tollway says the plan is necessary to pay for a $12 billion project to repair and expand Chicago-area expressways. When pressed by reporters, Quinn refused to take a stand on the issue.

"We're going to let the whole process take forward," Quinn said. "The Tollway has a board; they're going to have public hearings, and I think that's a healthy thing, to have the public have a chance to speak."

The Tollway Board is scheduled to vote on a plan by Aug. 25. If it passed, toll hikes would take effect starting next year. Officials said the proposed increase would probably be between 40 to 75 cents.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 30, 2011

Kirk, Durbin Question Airline Fare Increases

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk are questioning airline fare increases after a ticket tax holiday was created by the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The two Illinois senators have sent a letter to the head of the Air Transport Association asking why most carriers aren't passing the savings along to customers.

Other senators also are putting pressure on the carriers about the fare increases, and so is U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The FAA shutdown eliminated the airlines' authority to collect ticket taxes, which funds the FAA and airport construction. But nearly all carriers raised fares equal to the taxes.

Kirk, a Republican, and Durbin, a Democrat, say they worry the recent price increase is "a collective effort to take advantage of federal inaction.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 27, 2011

UI Administrator, Aviation Director Meet Over Program’s Future

Informal talks continue that may allow Parkland College to take over the University of Illinois' Institute of Aviation in three years.

The U of I's Board of Trustees voted last week to shut it down, once current students complete the program in 2014. The Institute's Interim Director, Tom Emanuel, met Wednesday with Interim Chancellor Robert Easter for what he calls a preliminary conversation.

Emanuel said the next step is for administrators at both schools to meet, and see if Parkland's finances will allow such a transfer. Those meetings likely will not happen until the fall semester starts. But Emanuel said Parkland could offer courses in addition to flight training.

"I do know Parkland has some interest in looking at a broader aviation program that would include maybe some other things, even conceivably, something with aviation mechanics... I just heard that through the grapevine literally," Emanuel said. "But it makes sense. Aviation is the second largest money producer in the state of Illinois after agriculture."

Easter said he holds out hope that flight training would have a future locally beyond 2014.

"Having a quality program locally available for students coming to the University of Illinois with an interest in learning flying skills," he said. "Proceeding to certification (with Parkland) would be a real plus. And so our interest is if there's a way we can facilitate that, as I told the Board (of Trustees) last week, we will do that."

Easter called last Thursday's decision to close the Institute one of the tougher days in his role of administrator, but said it was the right one to allow for the growth of other programs on the Urbana campus. Administrators say closing Aviation would save $750,000 in a program suffering from declining enrollment.

Emanuel said any arrangement with Parkland would have to be done on smaller scale, since Parkland is a two-year institution and doesn't have the authority to offer a baccalaureate degree. And Emanuel said the Institute's aircraft belong to the U of I's Board of Trustees, and cannot be transferred to a community college. But Emanuel said he believes some arrangement could be made for Parkland to use the planes if everything else falls into place.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 26, 2011

Champaign Council Considering “Smart” Parking Meters

The city of Champaign is looking to give some motorists another option for those who don't have change for the parking meter.

City council members Tuesday will be asked to give preliminary approval for a test run of 'smart meters' downtown. The first 37 of them, which accept debit and credit cards, would be installed in the 100 block of North Walnut Street, and on Chester Street between Neil and Market Streets.

Patti Anderson is a management analyst with Champaign's Public Works Department. She says the meters should boost city revenue, but also cut down on parking tickets.

"You can expect to see parking violations decrease because people are more inclined, with the credit card, to put in the full amount for the time limit," said Anderson. "And so, that way you need more revenue generated because they put more money in in the first place, but you do see a decrease in parking fines."

The city is planning a six-month trial for the first meters to see how colder weather affects them. Champaign may then purchase those meters, install about 30 more north of the trial area, and 100 additional ones in the easternmost portion of Campustown.

The city council meets in a study session starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday. But even if they're finalized next week, city staff says it could be a while before the meters are actually in place, since Champaign first has to set up a schedule with a vendor for installing them.

The University of Illinois and city of Urbana are also exploring the use of smart meters.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 25, 2011

Authorities Confirm Victims’ Names in Plane Crash

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)

The three victims of a fiery plane crash in Rantoul have been identified.

Fifty-six-year-old Jon Buerkett, his wife, 47-year-old Dana Buerkett, and their daughter, 19-year-old Morgan Buerkett, all of Champaign, were killed Sunday when the single-engine plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Rantoul Airport.

A preliminary autopsy conducted late Monday by Champaign County Coroner Duane Northup indicates all three family members died from blunt force trauma.

Rantoul Police Chief Paul Farber says severe weather was rolling into the area at the time of the crash. The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.

Tom Fiedler, a friend of Jon Buerkett, said Monday they were co-owners of Melody Music in Champaign, a coin-operated music and equipment company. Dana Buerkett owned her own marketing business and Morgan Buerkett was a University of Chicago student.

Categories: Transportation

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 25, 2011

Gov. Daniels Seeks Disaster Status for Vermillion, Wayne Counties

Gov. Mitch Daniels has asked President Barack Obama to add Vermillion and Wayne counties to 32 counties approved for a federal disaster declaration last month.

If Monday's request is approved, state and local governments and certain non-profit organizations in the two additional counties would be eligible to apply for federal aid to pay 75 percent of the approved cost of debris removal, emergency services and repairing damaged public facilities such as roads and buildings.

The disaster declaration Obama issued last month covers damage from flooding, tornados and straight-line winds between April 19 and June 6.

Wayne County is along the Ohio state line and Vermillion is along the Illinois state line.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 25, 2011

Planes Still Fly, But FAA Shutdown Blocks Airport Construction Projects

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)

Thousands of contractors have been ordered to stop work on airport construction projects. Meanwhile, Illinois lawmakers continue to disagree over legislation needed to put those workers back to work.

The Federal Aviation Administration's operating authority expired Friday night - after the House and Senate couldn't agree on a bill to extend it.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said he tried to pass a temporary version of the bill - but Republicans objected.

"This political brinkmanship may be somebody's idea of a victory," Durbin said. "It's my idea of a defeat for workers across America and for the maintenance and the construction of new airport facilities."

But Illinois Republican Congressman Randy Hultgren said his chamber is being proactive - passing a plan that Senate Democrats don't support.

"What they're doing is they're just kicking the can down the road another couple months each time that this happens," Hultgren said.

The modernization program at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is not expected to be affected by the work stoppage yet. But according to the FAA, the $1.5 million re-paving of a parking lot there will not happen until Congress reaches an agreement.

Meanwhile, the manager of Champaign-Urbana's Willard Airport said a construction project slated to start this fall at his airport could be affected if the partial shutdown at the FAA continues.

Willard manager Rick Wanzek said the project to widen part of an airport taxiway is to be bid in August.

"If they're not back to operating, and if they haven't released funds for a grant, then that would delay the project," he said. "That would be a significant impact that - we wouldn't get a project done this year that we were hoping to get done."

But Wanzek said air traffic controllers are exempt from the shutdown at the FAA, which means flights can continue as usual. An FAA spokesman said investigators are still on the job --- including those taking part in the investigation of Sunday's fatal crash of a single-engine plane at the Rantoul Airport.

(AP Photo/Jim Prisching, File)

Categories: Transportation

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 24, 2011

Three Dead in Small Plane Crash in Rantoul

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

The names of three people who died in a fiery plane crash Sunday in central Illinois have been released.

Rantoul police have not released the names of the people on the plane, but multiple news reports cite a family member who identified the victims as Champaign residents Jon Buerkett, 56; his wife, Dana Buerkett, 47; and their daughter, Morgan Buerkett, 19.

According to an official with the Federal Aviation Administration, the single-engine Piper PA 46 airplane went down shortly after takeoff at the Rantoul Airport about 125 miles southwest of Chicago. Agency spokesman Roland Herwig said federal authorities were notified of the crash before 10 a.m. Sunday, and that the plane was destroyed by fire.

Rantoul Police Chief Paul Farber said severe weather was rolling into the area at the time of the crash.

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.

Autopsies are scheduled Monday, according to Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup.

Categories: Transportation

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 22, 2011

Some Champaign Neighborhoods Leave Pedestrians Out in the Street

(Reported by Dan Petrella of CU-CitizenAccess)

The city of Champaign came up with a plan 25 years ago to repair deteriorating sidewalks.

Since then, the city has fixed some old ones and developers have built new sidewalks in new subdivisions.

But in some of the older areas in town - many of which are home to low-income residents - the city never had a plan to install sidewalks and has never done so.

In fact, despite the city's goal of being a "walking community," about one-fourth of its streets lack sidewalks, according to planning documents.

Champaign's 2011 comprehensive plan states that development should be "designed to promote street life and encourage walking with interconnected sidewalks, trails and streets." Sidewalks also provide a safe way for children to walk to school, for those who use public transit to get to their bus stops and even for residents to walk their dogs, city officials say.

"Sidewalks are an important element in promoting walkability and recreation," Lacey Rains Lowe, a Champaign city planner, said in an email interview.

Leslie Kimble lives in Dobbins Downs, one of the older neighborhoods in town without a complete sidewalk system. The subdivision, located just north of Interstate 74, was originally developed outside Champaign's limits, but a portion of the neighborhood has since been annexed into the city.

It is one of the lower-income areas in town, a factor Kimble thinks adds to the neighborhood's need for sidewalks.

"Because our neighborhood is low-income, there are many people without cars," Kimble said. "Sidewalks in our neighborhood, especially leading along Anthony Drive to all the stores and restaurants, would be very helpful, not to mention much more safe."

City documents show that planners are aware of the problem.

"Some streets (in Dobbins Downs) have sidewalks while others do not, resulting in a disjointed system," according to the city's comprehensive plan. This limits residents' access to nearby employers and the restaurants and stores on North Prospect Avenue.

Sidewalks not required until 1970s

The condition of a neighborhood's sidewalk system is directly related to planning regulations at the time the neighborhood was developed, according to city documents and planning officials

Lynn Dearborn, a University of Illinois professor of urban and regional planning, said the fact that many of the neighborhoods without sidewalks are lower income is most likely a coincidence.

"Whether a neighborhood in the city has a sidewalk system is largely based upon when it was developed and what state policy was," Dearborn said. "I've noticed parts of the city that are more well-to-do but still are lacking sidewalks in some areas."

Prior to the early 1970s, Champaign, like Urbana and many other cities, did not require sidewalks in residential areas. That meant neighborhoods developed during the 1950s and 1960s never had any installed. Since then, it has been mandatory for all new developments - residential, commercial and industrial - to have sidewalks installed along their streets.

But constructing sidewalks in older neighborhoods is complicated and expensive due to existing infrastructure and the need to negotiate right-of-way agreements with property owners, according to planning documents.

"When a neighborhood is designed without key urban design elements ... it is much, much harder and more costly to locate and build those things after the fact," Rains Lowe, the city planner, said.

Champaign's ongoing financial woes make it unlikely that this situation will change in the foreseeable future. Adopted in 2008, Champaign's transportation master plan says that "adding sidewalks on the miles and miles of arterials, collectors and local streets is not financially possible in existing neighborhoods."

Meanwhile, the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 reduced some funding for repairing aging sidewalks.

Sidewalks increase by 32 percent

The mileage of sidewalks throughout the city has increased by 32 percent in five years, from about 267 miles of sidewalks in 2005 to 352 miles in 2010, according to city documents. This is a result of new development, annexation and a handful of projects that built new sidewalks in existing areas of the city.

Before retiring in May, Gup Kramer, former concrete supervisor for the Champaign Public Works Department, said that creating new sidewalks is not the city's main priority. For the past 25 years, the plan has been to fix up sidewalks that have deteriorated over time but not install more in most existing neighborhoods.

As part of the city's sidewalk rehabilitation program, enacted in 1985, Public Works budgets about $400,000 for sidewalk repairs each year. The department's Engineering Division also provides about $200,000 annually for repairs through its neighborhood infrastructure repair program.

But cuts to the Public Works budget this year will slow the pace of sidewalk repairs.

Sidewalks lacking in higher income areas too

Gabe Lewis, a transportation planner with the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, has studied pedestrian issues extensively through his work on the Champaign-Urbana Safe Routes to School Project.

The project's goals include educating the public about the safest ways for pedestrians and bikers to get to school and identifying problems, such as a lack of sidewalks, that keep kids from walking and biking.

While some lower-income schools lack sidewalks in the surrounding area, the problem is not exclusive to these neighborhoods, Lewis said.

For example, the lack of sidewalks in the neighborhood south of Kirby Avenue and east of Prospect Avenue is a major barrier that prevents students from walking to Bottenfield Elementary School, according to the Safe Routes to School report. Bottenfield, 1801 S. Prospect Ave., is located in a higher-income neighborhood and has a smaller percentage of low-income students than the Champaign school district as a whole.

The Safe Routes to School Project has worked with the city of Champaign to try to obtain funding to fill in gaps in sidewalk systems near schools.

Late last year, the city and the Regional Planning Commission applied for a grant through the Illinois Department of Transportation that would pay for improvements near Stratton Elementary School, 902 N. Randolph St., where about 70 percent of students come from low-income families. Among the proposed upgrades is a new section of sidewalk on Neil Street between Edgebrook Drive and Kenyon Road.

Since 2001, Champaign has financed projects to fill gaps in the existing sidewalk system, focusing its attention on areas near schools and places where safety problems exist or where gaps are less than one block long. The city spent about $155,000 on such projects last year and has budgeted about $95,000 every other year for the next 10 years for additional projects.

The city also has a goal of constructing sidewalks along major roadways that currently do not have them, but there is a $2 million backlog for such projects, according city documents.

Residents who want sidewalks in their neighborhood have the option of requesting that they be built and splitting the cost with the city. But, according city documents, this program has never been used.

Urbana, which also has several older neighborhoods without sidewalks, offers a similar cost-sharing program. But Bill Gray, Urbana's Public Works director, said he hasn't seen it used in his 20 years with the city.

"People are usually resigned to the lack of sidewalks in these residential areas, or they're not willing to share in the cost (of building them)," he said.

Jeff Marino, a Champaign city planner, said some residents don't want sidewalks built in their neighborhoods because they don't want to give up a portion of their yard for a public right-of-way.

Garden Hills gets new sidewalks

But in some neighborhoods, residents welcome new sidewalks.

The Garden Hills subdivision just south of I-74 is another neighborhood that never had sidewalks. Built during the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood is home to some of the city's poorest residents.

Amy Revilla, president of the United Garden Hills Neighborhood Association, said that the city has taken steps toward installing more walkways in her neighborhood.

"Sidewalks have always been a concern of ours, mostly on Paula Drive, where there is a lot of foot traffic," Revilla said. "The city of Champaign has done a great job in doing what they can, but funding is always an issue."

Using about $200,000 in federal stimulus funds, the city built two blocks of new sidewalks along Paula Drive last year and made improvements to sidewalk ramps near Garden Hills Elementary School. The city plans to build another block of sidewalks along Paula later this year, Chris Sokolowski, a Champaign civil engineer, said in an email.

Need for those with disabilities

One purpose of sidewalks that may be overlooked by many is accessibility for people with disabilities.

Kramer, the former concrete supervisor, said the city was ahead of its time when it came to accessible infrastructure for the disabled. In 1987, Champaign passed a policy that required the installation of sidewalk access ramps whenever curbs or sidewalks were replaced.

Five years later, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required ramps to be installed throughout the country. Since the act was put in place, ramps have not been installed in neighborhoods that never had sidewalks to begin with.

Sokolowski said that the recent struggles of the economy and reductions in revenue have caused the city to cut back on its spending on capital-improvement projects and focus primarily on maintaining existing infrastructure.

The current financial climate makes it a challenge to keep up with needed repairs. Before his retirement in May, Kramer's sidewalk-repair crew was cut from eight workers to seven.

"Champaign is a leader in all infrastructure," Kramer said. "We've been very aggressive. But a city is like a homeowner: if you have money, then you can make the repairs. I expect there to be less money in the future, and less repairs.

(Photo by Dan Petrella of CU-CitizenAccess)

Categories: Economics, Transportation

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