Illinois Public Media News
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.
Bicyclists in Champaign will get their own lanes on two major north-south arteries if city council members approve.
The city is proposing adding a bike-only lane to State and Randolph streets, from their north ends at Bradley Avenue south to Hessel Boulevard. City planners are holding an open house Monday afternoon at the Champaign Public Library to discuss the plan for the two one-way streets.
Planner Mishauno Woggon is aware of the grumbling that came from some motorists after one of the first high-profile bike lanes was developed along Urbana's Philo Road commercial area. She says the new lane configuration restricted vehicle traffic through what planners call a "road diet."
"With the State and Randolph project there is no lane reduction so there is no road diet as part of this project," Woggon said. "So for drivers they're really not going to notice a difference in terms lof less lanes to drive in or congestion or things like that."
Woggon says in some narrower parts of State and Randolph streets, the bike lanes will be marked as so-called "sharrows," meaning bike and vehicle traffic will share them. The open house at the Champaign Library runs from 4:30 to 6:30.
A semi-trailer carrying nearly 200 hogs overturned on an interstate west of Champaign Monday, blocking traffic for several hours. The driver of the semi was unhurt. But an estimated 10 to 12 percent of the hogs were killed, including about a half-dozen who had to be euthanized at the scene, due to their injuries.
That work was done by veterinarians and students from the University Of Illinois College Of Veterinary Medicine, who were called to the scene by state police to help out.
Dr. Kris Clement of the U of I Vet-Med teaching hospital was one of those called to help with the injured hogs. She says that fortunately, traffic accidents involving livestock trucks happen rarely. But Clements says the accident gave her students valuable experience - including a lesson about when to step into an accident scene.
"Our role didn't start until the survivors got off the trailer because that's the biggest thing -- you've got to get the uninjured ones off the trailer so they can be taken away and you actually have the room to work with the injured ones," Clement said. "Our instinct is to want to help right away, but we can actually get in the way."
The semi overturned as it was turning off of westbound I-74 onto southbound I-57. All lanes and ramps were opened to traffic after the truck and the uninjured hogs were removed.
Champaign police say a gambling operation broken up by officers last week had been going on for nearly four months.
Deputy Chief John Murphy says the two Champaign men arrested Thursday, December 17th on charges of Gambling and Keeping a Gambling Place had rented out a storage unit in the 600 block of Ashford Court, furnishing it with heating and air conditioning, gaming equipment and selling food. And Murphy says 43-year old Jeffrey Wingo and 30-year old Brandyn Odell were charging $50 admission for players when police executed a search warrant that evening. Those two men and 18 others were issued notices to appear in court for Gambling-Betting or Wagering. And Murphy says the large amounts of potential winnings for players brought in many from outside the area. "Some of them had addresses as far away as Wilmette and Bloomington, and so there were people that were making a concerted effort to participate in the games," says Murphy. "They had dry erase boards up that had the dollar equivalent for each color chip, and based on what we saw there, it was certainly possible for thousands of dollars to end up on the table at any one time."
Murphy says anywhere from 20 to 50 people would show up the alleged poker games on a given night. He says Champaign Police were tipped off by a family member of someone who frequently joined the games. Wingo and Odell are expected to make their first court appearances next month.
The Urbana City Council has put a two-week delay on a vote to endorse the latest revision of the area's Long Range Transportation Plan. At Monday night's council meeting, some members voiced concern over some of the highway projects proposed for Champaign-Urbana during the next quarter-century.
Alderman Brandon Bowersox says the those projects run counter to the plan's own goals for protecting the environment and conserving energy.
"But then the actual implementation", says Bowersox, "when it comes down to what roads would be built, and the projections for how much we'll all be driving shows that the amount we'll be driving goes up a lot faster that population growth, even. So, per-person, we'd all be driving a lot more in 2035 than we're driving today, to live in our community."
Alderman Charlie Smyth says the increased motor traffic would be caused by upgrades of roads on the fringes of Champaign-Urbana that he says are not needed. He was especially critical of a 71-million dollar plan inserted into the long-range plan by IDOT to widen I-74 from Prospect Avenue in Champaign out to Mahomet.
"Where is the justification for expanding I-74", Smyth asked the council. "It's not in the models. There's a statement that says this will relieve future congestion. But there's no modeling that says there's any congestion, even in 2035."
Smyth moved to defer council action on the plan until December 21st, to allow more time for review. But Rita Morocoima-Black of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission says that will give them little time to incorporate the council's decision into the plan --- which must be submitted to the state by the end of the year. Endorsement of the plan by local governments is not required, but helps in winning state funding for local road projects.
A Champaign County Board committee is recommending that voters be allowed to decide if the county auditor should remain an elected office.
The underlying issue at Wednesday's Policy Committee meeting was not the auditor's office but the auditor himself. Tony Fabri has been under a cloud since the News-Gazette analyzed phone records to conclude that the Democrat was often away from his desk. Democrat Carol Ammons argued that the performance of one office-holder was not reason enough to switch to an appointed auditor.
But Republican Alan Nudo said it was the people who should decide the future of the auditor's office. And he said the mid-term appointments of both Fabri and his predecessor Mike Frerichs to the county auditor position in past years amounted to political cronyism meant to bypass the voters.
"We've had two hand offs in-between elections in the auditors positon', says Nudo, "to high-powered officials within the (Democratic) party. Is that thwarting the will of the public? Is that this magical things that people bring up of how the elected is much better than appointed.
The Champaign County Board will consider the proposal August 20th. If they approve, the ballot question would come to voters in November of 2010. And if voters approve, the auditor's post would be appointed by the county board or perhaps the county administrator, starting in 2012.
Policy Committee rejected proposals to ask voters if they want to make the county coroner and recorder of deeds appointed as well.
Three people have died after their vehicle was struck by Amtrak's westbound California Zephyr, with 277 passengers and crew aboard.
LaSalle County Sheriff Tom Templeton said Monday that five people were in the vehicle when it was struck by the Amtrak train just before 3:07 p.m. Two other occupants were injured.
Two of the deceased were identified as 82-year-old Benjamin Rasmusen and 81-year-old Marilyn Rasmusen of Leland. The third victim was not immediately identified.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari confirmed a vehicle was obstructing the tracks and says there were no injuries to passengers or staff aboard the train. The train was delayed for seven hours, and 100 passengers bound for Omaha and points east were transferred to charter buses. The wreck also delayed four other Amtrak trains, Magliari said.
The initial groundwork has already been laid for a high-speed rail line between Chicago and St. Louis, with trains traveling 110 miles an hour.
Now the authors of a new study of even faster trains want to include Champaign on such a route. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is advocating for 220 mile an hour trains that would connect Champaign to Chicago in 45 minutes.
Association Executive Director Rick Harnish says competitors in Asia and Europe have gained an edge on their ability to compete in a global economy. He says China's trains will cover the distance of Chicago to New York down to four hours by the year 2013:
"If you could get on a train here and be in Chicago and transfer to another train and be in New York in 5 hours, you can't do that by plane today. It does have an impact," Harnish said. "We're spending more on our infrastructure than our competitors are, we're spending more per-trip, per-person than our competitors are, and we're making fewer trips than our competitors are because it's so much more expensive to travel here than over there."
Illinois is in the running to receive 8-billion dollars in federal stimulus money to begin building initial high-speed rail lines. Meanwhile, Governor Pat Quinn is asking lawmakers to add 400-million dollars for high-speed rail in a capital construction program. Harnish estimates the state would need to find another 10-million for a market study of the faster trains.
Illinois Senate Transportation Committee Chair Martin Sandoval says Illinois is no longer looking at theories and believes the state will make the investment.
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