Illinois Public Media News
Emergency crews in Illinois spent all day Wednesday helping stranded motorists and clearing snow-covered roads following this week's large blizzard.
The state police and the Illinois Department of Transportation restricted access to certain parts of major interstates, so that crews could do their job. But by the end of the day, just about everything that was restricted was re-opened, according to Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson. The only area still closed off to non-emergency vehicles is I-55 at Lakeshore Drive.
"If you do have to go out, make sure you have that survival kit in your car," Thompson said. "If you do get stranded out there, it could still be a while before someone could be there to assist you."
While the snow is being cleared, it is going to be dangerously cold on Thursday. People are encouraged to drive with a cell phone, bottled water, food, flashlight, and a blanket.
Conditions are improving along county roads in Champaign County, but authorities still say traveling is not a good idea.
Emergency Management Agency director Bill Keller says highway crews stopped plowing overnight because of low visibility but resumed before dawn. Since then, he says they've made headway on most primary county highways despite high winds.
"As soon as those die down, the crews can clean things up quicker, and we should be in fairly good shape by tomorrow morning," Keller said. "We'd still like to deter people from being out. Number one, it's not really safe, and number two, it gives our crews a better chance to get stuff cleaned up without all that traffic out there."
Keller says any drifting is happening mainly on east-west roads. He says thanks to light traffic, they've not had to rescue many stranded motorists on county roads.
Illinois State Police say state highway conditions in East Central Illinois were improving late this morning, but they don't stay that way for long due to blowing and drifting.
Sergeant Bill Emery says most of the 17 accidents handled by troopers since early this morning have occurred on Interstate 57 between Mattoon and Rantoul, but he says only one of them resulted in minor injuries. They've also responded to more than 100 vehicles in ditches. But Emery says US Route 150 between Mahomet and Mansfield is impassable, as is Route 128 north of Shelbyville.
He says anyone leaving the house for even a minor errand needs to prepare as if they were taking a road trip. "Make sure you have plenty of gas in your car before you take off, even if it's just to the store," Emery warned.. "If you look up in the Chicago area, there were many people along Lake Shore Drive who were in traffic for hours due to what was happening maybe just a mile ahead of them, like a crash, and (they were) running out of gas."
Emery says troopers are relocating stranded motorists, but they shouldn't expect their vehicles to be towed for two to three days because of the weather and road conditions.
A legal dispute between the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (C-U MTD) and the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District (CSWMTD) is a step closer to heading to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The C-U MTD board voted unanimously Wednesday to appeal a ruling by the Fourth District Appellate Court stating that the two transit districts can share boundaries.
The CSWMTD was approved by voters in 2006 as a response to the C-U MTD annexing property in Southwest Champaign. Voters wanted to prevent C-U MTD service from coming into certain neighborhoods. Some people who live where the two transit districts overlap pay property taxes for both services, even though the CSWMTD provides no transit service.
"We don't think that Illinois law permits double taxation for identical services," C-U MTD attorney Marc Ansel said. "There have been cases in Illinois involving identical local governments seeking to tax and service the same territory, and the supreme court of Illinois we believe has said that can't be done in the state of Illinois."
Ansel said he hopes the Illinois Supreme Court will decide to hear the case within a couple of months. He said if that happens, oral arguments could begin later this year.
Meanwhile, the CSWMTD board voted to appeal the appellate court's ruling earlier this month also stating that residents should not have to pay higher taxes for two transit services. If there is a final court decision, CSWMTD Chairman Ed Vaughan acknowledges that his group may have to come to a decision about whether to actually provide bus service.
"We've been recognizing that we've got that coming for quite some time, and every one of us pondering exactly what we think we ought to do," Vaughan said. "And we will have that discussion.
Mitsubishi Motors North America plans to produce a new model at its plant in Normal, Ill., extending the life of the facility just a month after employees agreed to lower wages the company said were needed to keep it open.
Mitsubishi announced the plans as part of new, global business plan aimed at revitalizing the troubled Japanese automaker.
"One of the main pillars of this (plan) is a transition from region-specific models with all of the specifics that entails - producing for a single market, single group of consumers, a single economy - to more global models that are produced for multiple markets," Mitsubishi spokesman Dan Irvin said. "And the new model will be one of those global models."
The company plans to announce what the new model will be in the next few weeks, he said, but all four models now made at the central Illinois plant - the Galant, Eclipse and Spyder and the Endeavor sport utility vehicle - will be phased out.
Employees and local officials at the plant said they're still waiting for details on the new model and to learn whether it will keep all 1,300 plant employees on the job. But the news that one of the largest and highest-paying area employers will stay open was a relief.
"These jobs are very hard to come by and, again, particularly in this economy when most companies of this nature are just hoping to sustain their current employment levels," city manager Mark Peterson said. "These would be, I hate to say impossible, but almost impossible to replace."
The United Auto Workers said Mitsubishi's announcement was a just reward for tough pay concessions its members had little choice but to accept.
"Considering the economy, the state of the economy right now, I think the decision was pretty clear for a majority of the members," UAW local President Ralph Timan said. "It was a tough decision, and it came with sacrifices."
Two-thirds of the union's almost 1,100 members at the plant voted last month to cut a reported $1.67 an hour from their wages after the company said it needed the concessions to remain competitive.
The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity said at the time that it was talking with Mitsubishi about possible incentives. The agency and company continue to talk but so far no tax breaks or other incentives have been provided spokesman Mike Claffey said.
Like the auto industry in general, Mitsubishi North America has struggled with slow sales. The company's U.S. market share for 2009 was just over one half of one percent - the lowest level since 1985, according to WardsAuto.com, a web site that tracks auto industry data.
The company's new business plan, which it calls Jump 2013, is aimed at producing more vehicles to sell in emerging markets such as China and Brazil. The goal, according to a company release, is to raise sales to 1.37 million vehicles in 2013 from the roughly 1 million it expects it will sell by the end of the current fiscal year in March.
The Normal plant started making the Gallant and the other three models it now manufactures in 2005, Irvin said.
"They've been very good to us for a very long time," he said.
The plant at one point employed far more workers, but 1,200 were laid off in 2004 as part of what Mitsubishi said at the time was its last chance for survival. Those layoffs have been followed by other wage and benefit concessions.
Peterson said Thursday that he's anxiously waiting for details about what the company's new model will mean for job numbers at the 22-year-old plant.
"The questions is: Now that's one model - is that going to sustain all 1,100 existing jobs, and could it mean more out there?" he said.
Mitsubishi is announcing major changes in production that effect its auto assembly plant in Normal.
The Japanese-based automaker says, as part of its new business plan, workers at the Normal plant will begin producing a new model vehicle later this year, while production of current models will be phased out. The company is shifting its production philosophy away from a regional to a global approach, and Irvin said the new model made at the Normal plant will be sold worldwide, not just in the U.S.
Mitsubishi spokesman Dan Irvin said the move reaffirms two decades of hard work by employees of the Normal plant.
"And I think we can all really happy and pleased about that and look forward to a bright future," added Irvin.
The announcement comes two months after union workers at Mitsubishi's Normal plant agreed to wage concessions in return for a jump start in production,
Irvin said Mitsubishi will announce details of the new model at an event in Normal in a couple of weeks. He would not say if the plans call for more hiring or an addition of a second shift. He said it will not include production of an electric vehicle, although Mitsubishi's new business plan calls for the launch of eight new electric-powered vehicles.
Some auto industry publications say the new vehicle will be built on the same platform that carries the Outlander crossover and the Lancer sedan--two of the company's highest selling models.According to the new business plan, it will take three years to phase out the Eclipse, Galant and Endeavor crossover and bring the new vehicle on line.
Tuscola lost out on its bid Tuesday to host a steam locomotive that would have traveled through a dozen communities in Illinois and Iowa.
Online voting for the contest through Union Pacific Railroad ended Monday night. In addition to Tuscola, other cities in the running included Little Rock, Ark., Boise, Idaho, and Baton Rouge, La.
Little Rock came out on top in the contest with 76,217 votes, narrowly defeating Tuscola by a little more than 3,000 votes. That means the steam engine will follow a route that starts in Kansas City, Mo., traveling east to Boonville, Jefferson City, Chamois and St. Louis before heading south to Cape Girardeau, Dexter and Poplar Bluff. It will continue through Bald Knob, Ark., before concluding in Little Rock.
According to Union Pacific Railroad, the engine is the last steam locomotive built for the rail company. It was placed in freight service in Nebraska from 1957 to 1959, then was saved from being scrapped in 1960.
Brian Moody, the executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc., admitted he was surprised Tuscola, with a population of around 4,500 people, got as far as it did in the competition.
"For our small community to even be competing with these much larger communities," Moody said. "It's kind of a big David and Goliath. We came up a little bit short, and that's ok."
Tuscola is a central point for three different railroads, including CSX, Canadian National, and Union Pacific. Moody said thanks to the national publicity from the contest, Tuscola city officials have been contacted in recent weeks by people who are interested in railroads, and he thinks some of those "railroad enthusiasts" might be encouraged to visit Tuscola.
"We knew there were railroad enthusiasts who had a lot of interest in Tuscola because of the unique characteristics in our rails," he said. "This kind of gave us the opportunity to demonstrate to them that we were as enthusiastic about those things as they were."
Moody said moving forward, Tuscola will focus on how it can take advantage of its rail services to boost tourism. He also noted that the city will keep an eye out on other similar competitions.
(Photo courtesy of Union Pacific Railroad)
Fluctuating temperatures mean more potholes in city streets.
Champaign's public works department says about 950 of them have turned up in just the last two weeks, since lower temperatures and moisture have preceded freezing conditions. Administrative Services Manager Stacy Rachel said warmer air then creates air pockets within pavement, forming potholes.
Rachel added that public works is keeping up with the higher number of potholes well, responding within two business days of public complaints. Rachel said crews use a different material for filling in potholes this time of year, a 'cold mix' that works well in frigid temperatures, but she said there is another limitation this time of year.
"The problem with this time of year as well is these are the same people and the same equipment that are needed when we have a snow event," Rachel said. "They have to stop repairing potholes and also go out and assist with snowplowing activities."
Rachel said the increase in potholes this season has a lot to do with unusually cold weather and heavy snowfall. Anyone discovering a pothole in Champaign is encouraged to call the city's operations division at 403-4770. That number is staffed from 7 a.m. to 3-30 p.m. weekdays.
The owner of Decatur's only taxi service has shut the company down over what he calls the city's 'unethical businesses practices.'
AOK TNI Taxi owner Anthony Walker says the city's effort to investigate one of his driver, listed as a convicted sex offender on a state police registry, was the last straw. Walker said he claims she was only driving limousines, which is not illegal, but the city contends the employee was operating a taxi after being denied a taxi driver's license since she was convicted of a sex crime.
Walker said his complaints over city Finance Director Ron Neufield stretch back to last spring, and he plans to file a discrimination lawsuit as soon as Tuesday. Walker said the city renewed AOK's license as a transportation company on time last April, but he said Neufield tried to shut it down after saying the paperwork wasn't done properly. Walker said it is unlikely that the taxi company will start up again.
"I just don't forsee me diving back into that," Walker said. "I don't feel received by this community per se with my taxi service, and if I don't feel comfortable with my energy and my efforts and my money, I'll go to Bloomington, Springfield, where I have offices at, and work there."
Walker also provides the limousine and airport shuttle transportation, but shutting down the taxi service means about 20 drivers are out of a job. Decatur City Manager Ryan McCrady said other problems with have surfaced, including lapses in insurance coverage that accompany cancellation notices.
"Every time we get a notice like that from the insurance company, of course we have to schedule a hearing," McCrady said. "As you can imagine, it's important that these taxis are properly insured. There has been situations where he's been in accidents and people have been injured. And we discovered the insurance had lapsed in that period of time."
McCrady said AOK TNI also fails to have cars inspected in a timely manner. McCrady said he hadn't heard of Walker's plans for a lawsuit, but says allegations of harassment are unfounded. With the taxi company down, the city will now offer van transportation to disabled residents who can't take city buses as part of the Decatur transit system's 'Operation Uplift' program.
Federal officials say the pilot of a small airplane is dead after a crash in central Illinois.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro says the single engine home-built aircraft took off from the Decatur Airport on Thursday afternoon and crashed 1.5 miles east of the airport.
Molinaro says the pilot was the only one on board. The pilot'sname was not released.
The plane was manufactured this year and is called a "Freebird Lite Sport.'' It was destroyed in the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
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