Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Monday that it's giving Amtrak $404 million to expand high-speed rail service in the Midwest.
The money will go toward making upgrades along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor and to constructing new segments of 110 mph track between Chicago and Detroit.
Once completed, the two projects are expected to reduce travel times and improve safety.
The Chicago-to-Detroit enhancements are expected to shave 30 minutes off of passenger travel times between the two destinations, and the government claims the construction phase of the project will create 1,000 jobs.
The money was part of $2 billion originally earmarked for high-speed rail links between Tampa and Orlando, Florida.
But Florida Governor Rick Scott canceled the project earlier this year, making the money available to be used in other parts of the nation.
The Department of Transportation targeted rail projects in 15 states to receive the additional funds. 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak had all applied for the dollars.
The largest share of the money - nearly $800 million - will be used to upgrade train speeds from 135 mph to 160 mph on critical segments of the heavily traveled Northeast corridor.
"The investments we're making today will help states across the country create jobs, spur economic development and boost manufacturing in their communities," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Advocates of high-speed rail are scheduled to go to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield on May 19th to lobby state officials to support enhanced passenger rail service in the state.
This morning defense attorneys for Rod Blagojevich are expected to cross examine the first major witness in the former governor's retrial.
John Harris was Blagojevich's chief of staff and he spent three days on the stand last week testifying for prosecutors. He was caught on federal wiretaps advising Blagojevich on how to use a senate seat appointment to enrich himself.
Harris hoped Blagojevich could become a member of Obama's cabinet and in exchange Blagojevich would appoint anyone to the Senate that Obama wanted.
Harris is caught on one phone call talking to another Blagojevich adviser about their attempts to get that offer to Obama's people.
"We wanted our ask to be reasonable and rather than make it look like some sort of selfish grab for a quid pro quo," Harris said. "We had to lay the groundwork to show that we're going to be stuck in the mud here."
Harris was an attorney and he has pleaded guilty in the case and is cooperating with prosecutors.
In their cross examination, Blagojevich's defense team could point out that Harris came up with many of the illegal schemes himself but that would be an admission that the schemes were indeed illegal. Instead they will probably focus on the idea that it was all just talk and no crimes were ever committed.
(Photo by Robert Wildeboer/IPR)
A new report by a fiscal watchdog group shows Illinois Governor Pat Quinn's proposed budget is unbalanced by more than $2 billion.
The report by the Civic Federation found Quinn overestimated some of the money the state is bringing in, specifically when it comes to income taxes.
Quinn's proposed budget estimates Illinois raised $7 billion when it increased the personal income tax rate earlier this year, but the Civic Federation's report finds Quinn's budget for next year does not set aside enough money for income tax refunds. It's about $1 billion short.
Legislators approved the tax increase in January to help balance the state's $13 billion deficit. Quinn also wants to borrow money to pay bills and temporarily suspend some state funding to local governments.
Recently, Illinois' comptroller announced that by her count, Illinois' budget is still some $8 billion out of whack.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has a stack of bills on his desk, but the most controversial he's likely to sign is House Bill 1210.
That one reached Daniels' office late Friday afternoon.
The bill cuts $3 million in federal funding to Planned Parenthood of Indiana. The money's from the federal government and is supposed to help low-income women get reproductive services. But Planned Parenthood also provides abortions, something Daniels opposes.
Daniels has already said he intends to sign the bill. He says Hoosier women will still be able to get reproductive health care services from other providers.
The head of Planned Parenthood in Indiana says her agency will sue to restore the funding, but will wait until Daniels signs the bill. That could come at anytime.
U.S. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana says the U.S. must continue to deal with Pakistan despite the fact that relations between the two countries are strained following the death of Osama bin Laden.
"Distancing ourselves from Pakistan would be unwise and extremely dangerous," said Lugar.
Lugar's comments came during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held Thursday.
The hearing dealt specifically with the U.S. policy toward Pakistan. Lugar, the committee's ranking Republican, said he wants to understand whether Pakistani officials knew bin Laden was hiding in the military town of Abbottabad.
He told Senators and experts at the hearing that America's trust in Pakistan has been shaken, but the relationship must continue.
To stop, he said, would "weaken our intelligence gathering. Further complicate military operations in Afghanistan. In short, Pakistan is a strategically vital country which we must engage for our own national security."
Committee chair Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, echoed Lugar's statements, saying America should not rush into a situation that hurts its interests.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Residents of flood-stricken Cairo were allowed to visit their properties Friday as a mandatory evacuation of the southern Illinois city remained in effect.
Residents could check on property, drop off or pick up items and check pets, said Cairo police chief Gary Hankins. They can't spend the night and the mandatory evacuation order from April 30 continues open-ended, he said.
Cairo is near the confluence of Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Most of the town's 2,800 residents left when the mayor ordered the evacuation, fearing the pressure from the high water in the Ohio River would burst the local flood wall and levees.
"The rivers are still at near-record highs," Hankins said. "It's just still not safe."
On Thursday, the Army Corps of Engineers completed its third and final explosion at the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri. The Corps intentionally breached the levee along the Mississippi River to relieve pressure on the floodwall at Cairo and elsewhere nearby.
That initial blast allowed water into 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland. About 100 homes were evacuated.
Meanwhile a voluntary evacuation remained in place at Metropolis, on the Ohio River across from Paducah, Ky.
Water levels declined Friday on the Mississippi and Wabash Rivers, but were holding or slightly higher on the Ohio River, said Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson.
"We actually already are looking at trying to get in with our damage assistance teams," Thompson said. "With flooding you really have to wait until the water goes down."
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
One of central Illinois' oldest and largest farmers' markets starts its new season Saturday morning, May 7th.
The Market-at-the-Square in downtown Urbana promises over 160 vendors selling everything from fresh produce to arts and crafts. Market director Lisa Bralts-Kelly says attendance averages about 7,000 visitors each week.
Not all produce is available at farmers markets in the month of May, and Market-at-the-Square is no exception. But Bralts-Kelly saod there are some things shoppers can always count on at this time of year.
"You'll have various lettuces, spinach, green onions, fresh-cut herbs that are OK in cool weather, all of those things," Bralts-Kelly said. "But then we have asparagus, which is really the star of the show. And the season for asparagus started a couple of weeks ago, so we'll have it at the Market this weekend. And then, as that starts to wane, the strawberries will start to come on."
One thing that will NOT be at Market-at-the-Square this year is pets and other animals.They're barred from the Market under a new policy. Bralts-Kelly said that they've come to realize that the busy outdoor market is not a good setting for pets.
"We just witnessed many interactions between, not just dogs and people, but also dogs and other dogs," she said. "And we did field a lot of complaints from patrons about animals --- whether it was for sanitation reasons, or crowding, noise, leashes. We've been compiling all this feedback for years, and we decided that this year was probably the time to do it."
Bralts-Kelly said pets are already banned at the Taste of Champaign-Urbana, and the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival --- making Market-at-the-Square the last big outdoor food event in the area to enact such a policy. Service animals will still be welcome, and community groups registered as "animal-related" can also have animals at their booths.
Urbana's Market-at-the-Square is a city-run event that runs Saturday mornings, now through November 5th, at Lincoln Square in downtown Urbana. It will be joined by another area farmer's market next month --- Champaign's North First Street will host its farmers market on Thursday afternoons, starting June 9th.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing hopes to have a snow removal ordinance in place well before next winter.
And the initial plans call for something more stringent than what's on the books in Champaign, which covers only downtown and Campustown areas.
The current proposal for Urbana would cover sidewalks throughout the city. The draft going out to neighborhood associations for input would also give property owners 24 hours to shovel sidewalks, as opposed to 48, as the ordinance states in Champaign. Prussing will also give the draft to city council members on Monday. She says the proposal was developed with pedestrians in mind, specifically kids walking to school and mail carriers.
"It's a danger for pedestrians to have to walk in the street and get hit by a car," said Prussing. "My neighbor came to testify to the Urbana City Council, because she slipped and fell and got a concussion. So every time there are slippery sidewalks, I think you see a lot of people coming to emergency rooms for injuries."
Prussing says the draft ordinance was patterned after what other Big Ten communities are using. It doesn't suggest a specific penalty for those who don't comply. The city of Champaign bills property owners for the work, plus a $100 fee. Prussing says just appealing to residents just isn't enough.
"We tried the voluntary approach, and that did get more people to clear their walks," she said. "But it still is difficult, because you go down a block and maybe three people have their sidewalks cleared and two people don't. And it just makes it difficult to get around."
Prussing says the idea now is to get people talking, and exchange ideas. She hopes to have an ordinance in place by September.
Eddy Hartenstein has been named the new president and chief executive officer of the Tribune Company. The board of directors appointed Hartenstein, and he'll take the position immediately.
Hartenstein has been serving as publisher and chief executive officer of Los Angeles Times Communications, LLC. He's held that position since August 2008, and will continue serving in the position. The company says Kathy Thomson will assist Hartenstein in these tasks through a newly created position of President and Chief Operating Officer of The Times.
In a statement, Chairman Sam Zell said Hartenstein will provide strategic vision and direction as the company prepares to emerge from the Chapter 11 process.
"Eddy is a gifted executive-he knows our operations, understands how technology is changing the media industry, and can help the company capitalize on those changes to continue achieving meaningful financial results," Zell said in his statement.
Hartenstein will be responsible for overseeing Tribune Company operations. He's served as co-president of the company and a member of its Executive Council since last October.
Previous Tribune CEO Randy Michaels resigned last October. His personal conduct and management style had come into question of whether he could lead the company out of bankruptcy.
A panel made up of Champaign County Board members and residents expects to forward to the board three district map designs in a plan to re-draw board districts.
Board members have to sign off on a plan to increase the number of districts to 11 by July. The redistricting commission has asked a planner to tweak three maps designed by the county's Regional Planning Commission to emphasize items like population variance, rural districts, and so-called 'majority minority' districts. The Champaign County NAACP and former county board candidate Eric Thorsland have also submitted maps for consideration by the commission and county board.
Commission chair Rick Winkel, a former Republican State Senator, said it's theoretically possible for an individual or group to submit a map, but the heavy analysis required give them only a slight chance.
"At this stage, it would be a very long shot for (one of them) to be considered," he said. "You'd have to have time to act on it, to diligently compare it and study it before we could adopt it and recommend it to the county board. And frankly, we're running out of time."
Earlier this week, the county board rejected map 1E on a party line vote. Democrats turned down the first map submitted by the Regional Planning Commission, saying it was worse than the current map, disenfranchising African-American voters, and did a poor job of keeping communities of interest together.
The county allocated about $14-thousand for the redistricting process. Winkel said there's enough of that money left to do five more revisions. But County Board Democrat and commission member Alan Kurtz contends the county would be willing to spend a couple thousand more, if required.
"If we need another thousand or two, I'm not sure if that would be a hangup," he said. "The point is, right now, we don't have to worry about that. At this point right now through the next board meeting, we will receive maps based on the budget. Even at that point, even if we reject that map, we'll not have to add to the budget because the commission still has, under the budget, two more revisions."
The redistricting commission's next meeting is scheduled for May 16th. The Champaign County Board meets three days later.
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