Illinois Public Media News
The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District is gearing up to replace half of its buses with hybrid models in the next couple of years.
The 40-foot diesel -electric vehicles are each priced at around $570 thousand dollars. Many of the existing gas burning vehicles are nearly 20 years old.
MTD Assistant Director Tom Costello said the typical life of a bus is 12 years, but that the mass transit district tries to keep its vehicles around for at least 15 years.
"Once you get to 15 years, your maintenance costs begin to go up exponentially," said Costello. "So, if we're going to replace them, we're going to try to replace them with vehicles that use less fuel and burn more cleanly."
Costello said the hybrids do not require nearly as much maintenance work as the gas-burning vehicles. The mass transit district first introduced hybrid buses in 2009. Spokeswoman Jan Kijowski said the long-term plan is to replace every one of its vehicles with hybrids.
Each bus will also include special filters that are designed to cut down on carbon emissions. Both the buses and filters will be supported through a combination of local, state, and national grants.
Another series of roundtable discussions on a proposed extension of Olympian Drive in Champaign County spent a lot of time on the design phase.
Engineers in Wednesday's public hearing in Urbana briefly ran through cost options of what's been identified as the first two phases through prior roundtables. Those are extending Olympian at Apollo Drive to Lincoln Avenue, and extending North Lincoln at Saline Court to Olympian. The full project calls for extending Olympian to US 45. The 60 people attending Wednesday night split up into roundtables on items like bike paths, wide medians, and installing roundabouts. But at least one elected official contends engineers have bigger issues to contend with first.
Champaign County Board Democrat Brendan McGinty calls the meeting a good effort, but says this issue is much more complicated. "There are going to be sticky issues regarding the sweeping 'S' up to connect Lincoln to Olympian," said McGinty. "Focusing on that to get the public behind that and the landowners behind that I think would be important. But, you know these are issues that would need to be addressed at some point. It feels like this is step 52 that we are taking now when we really need to be addressing step 1, 2, and 3."
McGinty says last night's forum also should have included talk on property acquisition, since it's been discussed among Urbana city leaders. County Board Republican Alan Nudo says he was impressed with the list of cost options, but says engineers need to do a feasibility study on the traffic in that area before deciding on a two or four lane road. Urbana City Council member Brandon Bowersox says he's glad stakeholders got to have a say. "There were no easy clear-cut answers, there were really a split of feelings, but at least it was good for me to see that everyone had a chance to come weigh in on that," said Bowersox. "That information will all be public, and all be available to people as we go ahead."
A longtime supporter of roundabouts, Urbana Mayor Prussing says she was happy to see support for traffic calming devices that cut down on accidents and save the cost installing traffic signals. Engineer Matt Heyen says Illinois' Department of Transportation has confirmed that part of $5-million in Illinois 'Jobs Now' funds can be used to extend Olympian Drive to Lincoln Avenue. The next public meeting on the project is expected this fall.
A US transportation administrator says research being done at the University of Illinois to boost innovations like high-speed rail may be one of the country's best kept secrets.
Peter Appel concluded a visit to campus with a tour of the ATREL facility in Rantoul. The site conducts various tests to prepare areas like Central Illinois for high-speed rail, and looks at different mixes of concrete and soil to see how they'll handle the weight of newer airplanes on runways. The facility testing equipment can even detect sinkholes in the earth's surface. Appel says railway engineering has been disappearing from a lot of institutions, calling the U of I an exception.
"The University of Illinois is advancing railway engineering more than any university in the nation," said Appel, who says the Obama administration's $8-billion investment in high speed rail includes replacing wood railroad ties with concrete. "As you pick the speeds up from 70 miles an hour to 80 miles an hour to 150 miles an hour, you need a lot more precision in the rail operations. Using, for example, concrete ties, helps drive that higher precision and ability for faster speeds. So that's the kind of developments that they're advancing here."
Appel says the U of I recognizes its role in advancing technology in high-speed rail, and that faculty in Urbana have been training professors elsewhere to teach courses in that area.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing's plan to tax gasoline for road improvements will be brought to a vote next week.
She calls the 2-cent a gallon motor fuel tax 'a modest proposal' - contending it's more expensive to not maintain streets than to maintain them. The ordinance also calls for an automatic escalator of point-4 cents per gallon each July for three years, unless the city council suspends it. The idea passed on a 4 to 3 vote by the Urbana City Council Monday night - so a formal vote can be held next Monday. One of three 'no' votes came from Alderman Brandon Bowersox, who says he likes the idea... just not the timing of it.
"I still feel like the economy has people in such a hard place just keeping their families afloat." said Bowersox. "It's a really hard time to implement a new tax. And I guess if it were up to me alone, I'd say let's wait 6 to 12 months, and look at this as part of next year's budget."
The four tenths of a cent escalator was also a concern for Alderwoman Diane Marlin, who says the tax should be limited to road repair. Mayor Prussing says the funds may be targeted for future road projects, like traffic roundabouts.
Alderman and supporter Charlie Smyth says city leaders would identify exactly what projects the tax would be used for. He says starting out slowly, but working up to a tax of 3-point-2 cents after three years... is a good amount of money to start making an impact.
"After that, it just should simply be part of the way we do the rest of our business." said Smyth. "..which is an annual review of all of our fees and permits."
Mayor Prussing says the local fund was necessary since the state motor fuel tax has been constant for 20 years, while the cost of road repairs has more than doubled. She also contends that cities like Danville haven't driven away motorists after enacting the tax. Besides Smyth, others backing the proposal were Robert Lewis, Dennis Roberts, and David Gehrig. Bowersox, Marlin, and Heather Stevenson opposed the plan.
The city of Urbana has been trying to make the area friendlier to bicyclists, and tomorrow an organization will give some recognition to that effort.
For the first time, Urbana will be listed as a Bicycle-Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. It's also a first for any downstate Illinois community.
Jennifer Selby is a civil engineer for the city. She's overseeing Urbana's pro-bicycle effort, which involves what she calls the "5 E's" -- engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation.
"Engineering means bike lanes, bike paths and those types of things," said Selby. "Education is the types of education programs you have, for adults and for kids -- campaign programs, videos, any kind of printed materials. Encouragement means programs such as Bike to Work Day, which we held the first one in May of this year."
The city also stepped up enforcement of bicycle safety issues - both for riders and motorists - and having a long-range plan for further improvements. Selby says more bike routes and year-round efforts to encourage bike use could raise the level of the bicycle-friendly community recognition from bronze to silver.
The League of American Bicyclists formally announces the title at a Saturday morning event at Urbana's Market at the Square.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing's motor fuel tax plan faces charges from critics who say it would raise gasoline prices in the city. But the mayor and chief of staff told council members Monday night that other towns with their own motor fuel taxes haven't had that problem.
Mike Monson, the mayor's chief of staff, says he talked with officials at six downstate cities with motor fuel taxes, including Danville, Tilton, Galesburg and Peoria.
"I talked to them about the competitive effect, " says Monson. "They seemed to think there wasn't much of a price differential between stations that were within the city that were collecting this tax, and stations in nearby communities and unincorporated areas that didn't have it."
But Monson walked back from earlier estimates that a two-cent a gallon gasoline tax could raise a half million dollars a year for Urbana. He now thinks the number would be more like $350,000. City Public Works Director Bill Grey says that would still be enough to help keep up with street maintenance.
"We really need to do more work with resurfacing streets, and seal-coating, crack-sealing and patching streets", says Grey. "So two cents would be a big help." :
Prussing argues that a 2-cent per gallon motor fuel tax would would be barely noticeable --- if passed on to customers --- because gasoline prices already vary widely from one gas station to another. Prussing says she did her own survey of gas station prices last Friday, and found a 23 cent difference between the highest and lowest prices.
"So a 23 cent difference between two gas stations in the same city is more than ten times as much as a two cent tax", says Prussing. "We don't think the tax will get passed on, but if it does, it's still a very small amount, compared to the daily changes and the differences between stations."
Still Republican Alderwoman Heather Stevenson was unconvinced. She said she worried gas stations just outside the Urbana city limits --- in Champaign to the west and Urbana Township to the east --- could take customers away from gas stations in Urbana, if a motor fuel tax passes.
Mayor Prussing says a city gasoline tax is needed, because revenue from the state's motor fuel tax and Urbana's s general fund have not kept up with inflation. She says discussion of the proposed tax will continue at a later council meeting.
The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District starts a new fiscal year Thursday with some uncertainty. The MTD Board approved a $36 million budget for F-Y 2011 on Wednesday-- with nearly two thirds of that funding coming from the state. But managing director Bill Volk says they don't know if Governor Quinn will reduce that state funding as part of budget cuts he's announcing Thursday morning.
"Well, we've heard nothing to the contrary (to full funding) at this point", said Volk, prior to Wednesday's CUMTD Board meeting. "But our full appropriation is in both the (Illinois) House and Senate versions, and the approved budget. So we'll just have to wait and see what the governor has to say."
Volk says the CU-MTD has put contingency plans in place, in case their state funding is cut. He says, for example, if state funding to the agency is cut by 10%, or $2 million, the reduction would come out of their Capital Expenditures budget, and NOT out of Operations.
At the same time, the CU Mass Transit District has yet to receive the $4 million the state had allocated to them for the 4th quarter of the fiscal year that ended Wednesday. Volk says the transit agency will use reserve funds and a line of credit to get by until that money arrives.
Meanwhile, the local revenue that makes up the rest of the CU-MTD's budget is taking a hit. Volk says the soft economy has resulted in lower property tax revenues. And he says the CU-MTD may have to seek an increase in the property tax levy.
"We would expect in our levy this year to maybe propose a 4% increase," says Volk. "But that would be the maximum, and it actually will probably end up lower than that."
Volk says the CU-MTD will likely annex additional territory in 2012. Areas that could be annexed include new sections of the Stone Creek subdivision in southeast Urbana, and the Apollo industrial subdivision on the north end of Champaign. But Volk says property tax revenue from newly annexed areas would not be available to the transit district until 2012.
The CU-MTD also lost an estimated $150,000 in the fiscal year just ended, due to its popular $60 annual passes. Volk says the passes have sold well since the price was lowered by nearly 75%. At the same time, he says CU-MTD ridership is up roughly 2%, at a time when public transit use is declining nationwide.
An airline's decision to leave the Champaign area's Willard Airport leaves only one airline serving the facility.
It also leaves Willard's manager wondering why Delta Air Lines plans to end its three daily flights to and from Detroit August 31. Steve Wanzek says he was shocked at Delta's phone call Wednesday afternoon mentioning the decision.
"It's been three weeks since they replaced the Saab turboprops with regional jets and added an extra flight," Wanzek said, hours after the call. "I thought we were headed in the right direction, and the feedback we were getting from the Delta desk people downstairs was that they were excited because passenger count had gone up."
Northwest Airlink flights between Willard and Detroit were rebadged with the Delta Express name last year as the two airlines merged. Mesaba Airlines operated the planes. The exit will leave only American Eagle at Willard, but Wanzek says American is a much more stable presence because Willard hosts a maintenance hub for their regional jets.
The federal stimulus program was lucrative for the University of Illinois, but less so for government agencies in Champaign County.
A report from the county regional planning commission says more than $162 million in stimulus funding rolled into the county in 2009. But nearly $96 million of that was for the U of I, mainly for research projects according to commission planner Susan Chavarria. $16 million of the total was for infrastructure projects, mostly road construction and improvements.
Chavarria says it's hard to compare whether Champaign County got more or less than other areas of the state or nation. "Smaller communities and smaller counties, they usually don't have the resources to go through the application processes or to take the time to look for the funding sources," Chavarria said. "So in terms of our ability to do that, I think that we have perhaps received more than some of the other downstate counties. For the $546 million that we asked for, our expectations were we'll take what we can get, so I think we've received a fair amount of funding here."
Chavarria says even the U of I assistance indirectly benefits the community in the jobs it ensures for researchers and students. She says stimulus assistance to the county also came in the form of government contracts and business loans.
Three people killed in a nine-vehicle crash on Interstate 57 have been identified as Mississippi women traveling to Illinois' Amish country.
Coles County Coroner Ed Schniers says the women killed Monday just north of Mattoon were: 61-year-old Sheila Douglas of Batesville, Miss.; her mother, 80-year-old Juanita Hall of Sarah, Miss.; and family friend Doris Mayo, who was 68 and also lived in Sarah.
Police say another of Hall's daughters, 58-year-old Anne Faust of Sardis, Miss., remains hospitalized.
Friend Angelisa Weaver of Sardis says the four were driving to the Amish country that's about 15 miles north of Mattoon.
State Police say 12 other people were injured when a big rig crashed into cars slowing for construction.
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