Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - January 20, 2011

Mitsubishi Plans New Model for Ill. Plant

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.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - January 20, 2011

Mitsubishi’s Normal Auto Plant to Switch to New Model

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.

Categories: Business, Transportation

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 18, 2011

Tuscola Loses Out on Bid to Host Historic Steam Engine

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)

Categories: Economics, Transportation

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 14, 2011

Champaign Crews Have Repaired Nearly 1,000 Potholes in Just Two Weeks

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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 13, 2010

Decatur’s Only Taxi Company Shuts Itself Down

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.

Categories: Politics, Transportation

AP - Illinois Public Media News - December 02, 2010

1 Dead in Plane Crash Outside Decatur Airport

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.

Categories: Transportation

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 29, 2010

UI Air Security Expert: More Searches are Not Equal to More Security

Airline passengers are putting up with a new and often unwelcome level of security screenings, but a University of Illinois professor who studies aviation security said those searches may not be useful.

Thanksgiving-weekend travelers at the nation's largest airports reported few slowdowns or other problems with "backscanner" machines that give screeners revealing images of passengers. Those who turned down the scans are subject to intensive pat-downs.

Professor Sheldon Jacobson said he believes federal officials pay too much attention to searching for banned items, and that the high-level searches should not be the first line of defense against terrorists.

"The question is, is this an effective use of a very powerful technology? In our own research, we don't believe it is," Jacobson said. "We believe that using it for secondary screening is far more appropriate and will actually facilitate a far more secure system, which is very counter-intuitive in some sense."

Jacobson says more effective security should focus on a passenger's intent. He said the Transportation Security Administration needs to further its research on ways of filtering out passengers based on background checks and looking for behavioral red flags at the airport.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 12, 2010

Added Flight Coming to Willard Airport Early 2011

American Eagle plans to add a flight route between Savoy's Willard Airport and Chicago's O'Hare Airport starting February 10.

Willard Airport manager Steve Wanzek said there has been a steady increase in Chicago-bound flights on American Eagle following Delta Air Lines' decision to leave Willard on August 31.

"We've long wanted additional service out of here," Wanzek said. "The airline itself saw that they were overbooked, and they didn't have enough seat capacity to handle the passengers that wanted to fly on their airline out of here."

The new flight would depart Chicago at 10:15 am and arrive at Willard at 11:05 am. It would then leave Willard at 11:30 am and arrive in Chicago at 12:20 pm.

Wanzek said that he has working with Sixel Consulting Group, an Oregon-based consulting firm, to find out if other airline carriers would be interested in coming to Willard. He also said he is trying to convince American Eagle to bring more air service to Willard Airport.

(Photo courtesy of caribb/flickr)

Categories: Transportation

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 29, 2010

State Transportation Money will Fund Area Bike, Pedestrian Trails

State grants are going to several projects in eastern Illinois that will make the way clearer for bicyclists and pedestrians. They range from nearly $626,000 to add bike lanes and walkway improvements to Urbana's Main Street to more than $1.24 million for a new bike path through Danville's Lincoln Park Historic District.

Another project getting funding is a proposed bike trail on a former railroad bed between Urbana and Kickapoo State Park near Danville. Steve Rugg heads the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation, which is working with the Champaign County Forest Preserve District on the so-called Kickapoo Trail. Rugg said the nearly $900,000 grant would help pay for land acquisition, but he said talks with the current owner of the rail bed have been deadlocked.

"We continue to work with CSX," said Rugg. "To this point we have not reached agreement, and it remains to be seen whether we'll actually get the acquisition completed."

The Illinois State Department of Transportation is giving out more than $6 million for the trails to help promote alternatives to driving. The village of Mahomet is also getting $1.18 million to help develop a pathway along Lake of the Woods Road, and the village of Rantoul will get to work on a bike path with a $782,000 grant.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 29, 2010

Tentative Contract Agreement Reached for Danville School Bus Attendants

A tentative agreement has been reached between Champaign's Teamsters union and representatives of the First Student bus company.

The two sides met for about eight hours Friday discussing details of a new three-year contract for 70 bus drivers and 22 bus monitors in the Danville School District. Those employees have been working without a contract since August 1st, and have never publicly announced plans to strike.

"We're very pleased to have a tentative agreement," said Maureen Richmond, a spokeswoman for the First Student bus company. "We very much value all of our employees - our drivers, monitors, mechanics, across the board - and take pride in the excellent work every day."

Richmond refrained from releasing details about the proposed contract, saying the union must first ratify the agreement. She said she expects union members to vote on the contract sometime within the next week.

Since July, the union had been demanding higher wages and benefits. Officials from Teamsters Local 26 did not return a call for comment.

(Photo courtesy of First Student)


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