Illinois Public Media News
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.
A plan to move air traffic control radar services from Willard Airport to the Chicago area in five years isn't sitting well with the airport's manager.
Steve Wanzek says he's finding little justification for an FAA proposal to move those employees from Champaign to Elgin. The radar control workers monitor air traffic just outside of the visual range of the tower. Willard is getting an updated control tower... and Wanzek says plans are to leave those facilities out, since the radar employees can perform the same function elsewhere. Willard's radar facilities also serve air traffic in Danville and Decatur. But Wanzek says communicating with radar control in the suburbs means losing local knowledge of the region in the event of an emergency. "We get a pilot that's lost or whatever who might able to identify some kind of landmark," says Wanzek. "Whether it be an interection, or a sign, or something that the local controller might know something about because he lives here, and drives around here, and maybe he's driven by that sign or knows that intersection better than he would know if he was up in Elgin."
Wanzek also says losing those employees will hurt the University of Illinois' Institute of Aviation, in which more than 250 students monitor the activites of both radar controllers and air traffic personnel on the ground. The FAA's change could impact 12 to 14 jobs. Agency spokesman Tony Molinaro says the agency continues to analyze the potential cost savings of those salaries, along with building Willard's new tower without a radar room. He also contends that only a handful of Willard employees handle multiple tasks. "The tower controllers would be sending the planes out from the runways and the radar folks are splitting them up or vice versa," says Molinaro. "People are coming from different directions, the radar folks are putting them in line, and then handing them over to the tower folks. Most of those people would stay where they are, cause we still need all those folks to be in the tower itself."
Willard Airport Air Traffic Controller Carl Jensen says he may consider relocating, but wants an explanation from the FAA regarding potential cost savings. He says it makes no sense to give some Willard employees a cost of living increase to do the same job from the Chicago area. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association is also opposed to the plan.
The Prairie Meadows subdivision in Savoy is among the areas that could be annexed into the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District later this year.
Managing Director Bill Volk says the CU-MTD Board has directed his staff to prepare annexation and legal notices for five areas. Public hearings will be held before the board takes a vote on annexation.
Prairie Meadows is the first major residential area of Savoy to be considered for CU-MTD annexation since the village and the transit district signed an agreement two years ago. Volk says that agreement protects some parts of Savoy from MTD annexation --- but not new residential areas.
"There are sections in Savoy that we cannot annex for 23 years, but other areas of Savoy, as they become annexable we are allowed per the agreement to annex that territory," Volk said.
The Stone Creek subdivision in southeast Urbana is also on the CU-MTD annexation list. Non-residential areas up for annexation include the Clearview commercial development site in northwest Champaign, some industrial tracts near the Apollo Industrial Park in north Champaign, and Willard Airport.
Volk says the CU-MTD Board will not vote on annexing the territories until after the next fiscal year begins July 1. If annexation is approved, property owners would not pay taxes to the MTD until the summer of 2012.
The debate over extending Olympian Drive moved to the Champaign City Council chamber last (Tuesday) night. Council members gave their preliminary endorsement for an intergovernmental agreement with Urbana and Champaign County to complete the 27-millon dollar extension.
Council members also heard comments from landowners in the area of the extension who oppose the project. They say that the road --- and the development it would attract --- would destroy hundreds of acres of high-quality farmland. They found an ally in Councilwoman Marcy Dodds, who cast the lone "no" vote Tuesday night.
"Farmland is an amenity, not an obstacle," Dodds said before the vote. "It's sustainable economically, and it speaks to our quality of life. We need to stop looking at concrete like it's the last word in economics."
But John Dimit of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation told the council that the impact of development on farmers would not be as bad as they feared.
"We all know 1600 acres --- that's been the touted amount that this land --- would open up for urban development. That's not going to happen overnight," Dimit said. "It's not going to happen at all if the road's not developed. But it'll happen gradually if the road is out there. So, many of the farms out there, I think will be able to continue in agricultural interests.
Backers of the Olympian Drive extension say it would provide a needed route between I-57 on the west side of Champaign-Urbana, and US 45 to the east. The project depends on a mix of state, local and federal funding. The Champaign City Council will take a final vote on the intergovernmental agreement on March 16. Urbana and the Champaign County Board will also vote on the proposal this spring.
With a 95-million dollar deficit to deal with, the Chicago Transit Authority has sought a cutback in mandatory free rides for seniors. But it's a less urgent matter for two transit agencies in east central Illinois.
Danville Mass Transit allowed seniors to ride for half-price until 2008, when the state required all mass transit agencies in Illinois to let everyone over 65 ride for free.
DMT Director Richard Brazda says they adjusted to the 100 percent discount, thanks to an increase in state funding.
"So at the time that was added, there was also an increase in funding that was provided for the various downstate operators", says Brazda. "So I guess it was felt that there wasn't an issue there, because they were getting additional funding, and therefore the loss of revenue was not significant."
The Illinois House Mass Transit Committee voted 20 to 4 on Thursday to approve a measure (HB 4654) limiting the free-ride mandate to low-income seniors enrolled in the state's Circuit-Breaker program. Brazda says if the measure becomes law, it's up to the Danville City Council to decide if Danville Mass Transit should follow suit.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District says he expects their free-ride policy to remain, no matter what lawmakers do. Tom Costello says the CU-MTD started granting free rides for all seniors and people with disabilities about 7 years ago, before the state mandate took effect.
"We certainly had our plan in place before the state made this move" says Costello, "and we see no reason to change the plan subsequent to the state deciding what they're going to do. Our plan was in effect without regard to what the state plan was."
Costello says they've budgeted for the free rides --- which serve as an alternative to more expensive point-to-point service, which the CU-MTD also provides to seniors and people with disabilities.
Plans for extending Olympian Drive through Urbana to U-S Route 45 could take on more solid form this spring --- with the signing of an intergovernmental agreement.
The agreement would commit Champaign County and the cities of Champaign and Urbana to working together on the multi-year project. Plans call for extending Olympian Drive over the Canadian National tracks, and through the north end of Urbana to U-S Route 45.
Champaign County Board members heard details of the project Thursday night from County Engineer Jeff Blue. He says state funding for the project has been secured.
"A majority of that money is (for building) the overpass of the railroad", says Blue. " We have five million dollars from the Capital Bill. And no, the money can't be used to build Monticello Road or or any other road. has to be used on the Olympian Drive project."
Much of the cost would be paid for with money from the federal government ---- money which local officials are still lobbying for. But Blue said Champaign County won't have money for the project until about 2013, because its available motor fuel tax dollars are currently funding other projects.
Thursday night's county board discussion did not require any action. But board members heard plenty of opinions.
Critics of the Olympian Drive extension told the board that the project would pave over valuable farmland, encourage urban sprawl --- or may be under-utilized because it's not really needed. Champaign County Board member Stan James noted that last argument. He said past projections of urban growth in Champaign County may have been over optimistic.
"We're looking at this road, and if it was desperately needed and the growth was for certain, that's something that should be taken into account" says James. "But we are seeing buildings, factories, the scope of our industrial, auto plants and everything changing. What type of growth we're talking about, I don't know."
But Olympian Drive's supporters told the county board that extending the road would meet a growing need for an east-west artery between I-57 and U-S Route 45. County Board member Steve Beckett said the county agreed to the project years ago in its Fringe Road Agreement with Champaign and Urbana.
"Why don't we do what we gave our word that we're going to do", said Beckett. "Just because Urbana stalled, doesn't mean that we should stall. We enetered into an agreement as a body politic. We ought to continue with our agreement. We ought to fund this project, in the way that Jeff has directed us to. And we ought to move forward."
Beckett referred to the city of Urbana's decision ten years ago to back out of the Olympian Drive project , while Champaign went ahead with its portion of the road. Now Urbana is back on board, and Mayor Laurel Prussing spoke in the project's favor at Thursday night's county board meeting.
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