May 30, 2013

I-57 Closure at C-U Postponed

The scheduled Thursday night closure of a stretch of I-57 in southwest Champaign has been postponed.

The closure was to be the last of three nightly closures scheduled this week, to allow work on a new Windsor Road Bridge.
But the Illinois Department of Transportation is postponing Thursday night's closure due to inclement weather. No further closures of I-57 are scheduled until the week of July 15th. IDOT says it will send out a notification two weeks before the next closure.

May 23, 2013

DePaul Study Calls for End to FAA Electronics Ban

More and more airline travelers have their eyes and fingers glued to tablets and e-readers, according to a study released Wednesday from DePaul University, leading authors of the research to call for an end to the ban on electronic devices during takeoffs and landings.

According to the study out of the university’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, once an airplane has reached the required altitude, more than 35 percent of travelers are switching on electronic devices at any random time during the flight -- up from around 18 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the growth of tablet or e-reader usage is even higher: The research says one in nine passengers on an airplane are tapping and reading away while traveling.

Transportation expert and study author Joseph Schwieterman said for the sake of all these tech-savvy travelers and the airlines they fly, the Federal Aviation Administration needs to drop their electronics ban during takeoffs and landings.

“You know, airlines are paying big bucks to outfit their airlines with Wi-Fi and some have tablet rental programs and back-of-seat screens you can plug your devices into,” Schwieterman said, “And those devices on short flights are 50 percent useless because so much of the flight’s consumed by the ban.”

Schwieterman says the FAA hasn’t released any evidence that shows why using these devices could be risky during takeoff or landing. By his numbers, the ban is keeping airline travelers off their electronics for over 100 million hours in 2013.

Meanwhile, the FAA says they brought together a group of technical experts, aircraft manufacturers and others from the electronics industry in January to explore which forms of technology could be safe to use. Spokeswoman Alison Duquette said the group should finish their work sometime this summer, then the FAA will review the results.

cars driving in Illinois
(Jeff Roberson/AP)
May 22, 2013

70 MPH Speed Limit Bill Goes to Gov. Quinn

The Illinois House has voted on a measure to raise Illinois' top speed limit to 70 miles-per-hour.

Currently, cars and trucks are limited to 65 miles-an-hour on most Illinois highways.

Opponents warned that raising the speed limit would result in more accidents. But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Smithton) said more accidents happen because of vehicles traveling at different speeds, not because of higher speeds.

"If cars are driving at 70 miles-an-hour on average, someone who's doing 60 has a higher propensity of being in an accident than someone who's doing 80," Costello said. "So, actually the slower-moving traffic causes most of the accidents."

Costello said 34 states have a top speed limit of 70 or higher.

Cook and the collar counties would be allowed to opt-out of the higher speed limit.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) said studies show increased speeds result in more crashes and deaths. The only east central Illinois House lawmaker to oppose the bill was Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington.)

The measure passed on a vote of 85 to 30. It has already passed the Senate, so it now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn. A spokeswoman would only say Quinn will "carefully review the bill."

President Barack Obama fixes the tie of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 15, 2013

Legislation Would Name Highway After Ray LaHood

U.S. Transportation Secretary and Illinois native Ray LaHood could get his name on a stretch of Interstate 74 running through his hometown of Peoria.

The (Peoria) Journal Star reports that legislation has been introduced in the state capital to grant that honor to LaHood, who is finishing up his four and a half years as transportation secretary.

A roughly six-mile stretch of the roadway in downtown Peoria would be dubbed the Ray LaHood Highway.

That section of I-74 was rebuilt under a project that LaHood had pushed for while serving in Congress.

State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth introduced the legislation. In a news release, she praises LaHood as a statesman, a strong advocate and a dedicated leader for Peoria.

air plane taking off
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
May 10, 2013

Decatur, Bloomington Airport Towers Stay Open

The Federal Aviation Administration says 149 air traffic control towers, including several in Illinois, will stay open. They were on the verge of closing by mid-June as a result of the federal sequester.

Airports in East Alton, Carbondale, Waukegan, Bloomington, and Decatur were at risk of losing federal funding for their towers.

But the FAA said those towers will be able to remain open after all thanks to extra money approved by Congress.

That is good news for Joe Attwood, the director of the Decatur Airport, which has five air traffic control operators assisting with incoming and outgoing flights.

“At least the tower stays open," Attwood said. "It means that controllers are going to continue to work, and it means that we continue to have that extra layer of safety for arriving and departing aircraft."

The Bloomington Airport was determined to fund its tower out of its own pocket. Airport Manager Carl Olson said he is grateful that does not have to happen.

“To have to fund this ourselves would have been the second largest cost in our operating budget after personnel," Olson said. "It’s at the same time all of our peer airports in Illinois would continue to receive those services for free.”

The towers that were poised to closed are operated by contractors for the FAAat low-traffic airports.

“We fight for air service in downstate Illinois and closing the contract towers would have, at a minimum, slowed down flights to five airports,” according to a statement by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I worked with (Transportation) Secretary (Ray) LaHood and the White House to avoid this unfortunate impact of sequestration and appreciate this positive response.”

"This announcement is important not only for the safety of our regional airports, but also for the role they play as economic engines throughout the state," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said in a statement. "I am pleased that the administration headed the bipartisan calls of more than 40 Senators to prevent these misguided closures."

Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis (R-Taylorville) also released a statement:

“I’m pleased with today’s announcement and am glad the Department of Transportation and the FAA have finally admitted what we’ve known all along, that they have the flexibility they need to make sensible, responsible cuts to their budget without putting politics before passengers. The decision to maintain traffic control tower operations and end employee furloughs is welcome news for local airports, especially in Bloomington, Decatur and Bethalto, and for communities, hard-working taxpayers and job creators."

The air traffic control towers will stay open through the end of this budget year, which is at least through Sept. 30, 2013.

(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
May 08, 2013

Smaller Airports Take Bigger Hit As Airlines Cut Flights

If you want to see the Fourth of July parade in your little hometown, you should book your flight now. Otherwise, you may have to drive there, or watch a video of the floats via an old friend's smartphone.

That's because air service — especially to smaller markets — is shrinking as airlines merge to boost profits, according to a study released Wednesday.

"The nation's small- and medium-sized airports have been disproportionally affected by these reductions in service," the report from MIT's International Center for Air Transportation concluded.

The study shows that between 2007 through 2012, U.S. carriers cut domestic flights by 14 percent. The number of seats being offered fell too, but less dramatically because airlines also started using bigger planes that could hold more passengers.

For people living in smaller markets, that's the rub: fewer planes are going to fewer places.

So if you want to get from, say, Atlanta to Dallas, you have lots of opportunities to board big planes. But if you want to fly from, say, Kansas City to Cleveland, your options have been shrinking — a lot.

The study shows that at the nation's 35 midsized airports, air carriers cut about one out of four scheduled flights in that five-year period.

But remember: The Great Recession ran from late 2007 through 2009. It slammed into the aviation industry and crushed profits, leaving airlines bankrupt or struggling to survive, as passengers stayed home. The MIT study says the small airports lost flights for a compelling reason: the airlines realized there was "simply a lack of local demand to support the service."

With the economy in recession, airlines had to find ways to squeeze out profits. So they shut down money-losing flights and reduced the use of fuel-guzzling small jets. They also pushed hard to make sure departing planes had passengers in every seat.

The percentage of seats filled hit a record of nearly 83 percent last year, up from less than 80 percent in 2007, the study found.

And as the number of flights has shrunk, average domestic roundtrip fares have risen to $374, up 4 percent from 2007 after adjusting for inflation.

The flight reductions and fare boosts have followed a series of industry mega-mergers, including the combination of Delta with Northwest and United with Continental. But the airlines say the wave of consolidation has helped stabilize their battered bottom lines. After years of bankruptcies, losses, layoffs and uncertainty, the airlines generally are scratching out profits again.

George Hobica, the CEO of, a low-fare-alert website, said he can understand the airlines' motivations. "They just have terrible profit margins, even in a good year," he said. Since they went through the post-recession mergers, "most airlines are making money again, even though their profit margins are still thin."

Given that economic reality, passengers have to accept that "this is the new normal," Hobica said. "If you live in Palm Beach, you may have to get used to driving to Miami" to get a greater selection of flights and fares.

But the changes are hard on smaller cities, which can lose business travelers and tourists when air service declines.

For example, the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area lost a great deal of air service when Delta cut back operations there after merging with Northwest. In the aftermath, Chiquita Brands International Inc. moved its headquarters from Ohio to Charlotte, where air service has been growing.

The MIT report concludes that smaller markets will benefit in coming years from the growth of "ultra-low-cost carriers" that will offer them some service, though not as much as they used to enjoy.

"At the end of the day, the airlines' individual route profitability will continue to decide which airports are served and which are not," the study said.

school bus
May 06, 2013

Gov. Quinn Calls for Large Cuts for School Bus Funding

School districts across Illinois could receive less money for school buses next year. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is calling for massive cuts to state spending on school buses. 

He said it would stave off further cuts to classroom spending. But critics are asking what good is classroom spending if students can't get to school?

Elementary students decked out in bright galoshes and rain coats pile on to a school bus in Springfield. State law requires free transportation for any student who lives at least a mile-and-a-half away from school. 

Local school administrators say that's becoming more difficult. Not only does Gov. Quinn's budget proposal cut general classroom funding by three percent. 

He would also slash transportation funding by 70 percent. Local school districts would be left to make up the difference on their own, but that won't be easy.

“We've frozen pay, we've done all those sort of things. but at a certain point, you get to the point where the only thing left becomes programs,” said Angela Smith, an assistant superintendent with the school district in Plainfield, in the far southwest suburbs of Chicago. 

She said the district has already cut $40 million in the last three years. If Quinn's transportation cuts become law, Plainfield would go into next year with a $5 million deficit.

“It's going to create this real animosity between groups because we're all going to be fighting over the same money," Smith said.

Smith said Plainfield schools already cut costs by having students meet at stops, instead of the bus driver going from house-to-house. She said she does not know what else the district can do.

Anthony Galindo said bus stops are really the only option for his school district to make up the difference. Galindo is the superintendent of Gibson City School District 5, about 30 miles north of Champaign, which includes large rural areas. In rural Illinois, students often live many miles from their school.

Galindo said less money could put the burden on parents to drive their kids, either to the bus stop, or to class ... which he says would result in a domino effect. He said more students might skip class more regularly, and because the state gives less money to districts with higher absentee rates, the district could see further funding cuts.

"That's counter-intuitive. How do you institute more programs and at the same time say 'We're going to cut your funding?'" Galindo said.

Despite the proposed $145-million reduction in bus funding, Quinn's budget spokesman, Abdon Pallasch, said the governor is committed to getting students to class on time. But he could not offer any indication of how the governor might help districts make do.

Pallasch said cuts to school transportation funding were proposed last year by the General Assembly, but they were averted because Illinois instead used money it saved by closing state facilities.  He said this year, there are no more facilities to close.

Pallasch said increasing pension costs require the governor to cut education spending.

"There's no good options here. When you cut money to education, do you cut classrooms? Teachers? Buses?" Pallasch said. "That puts more of a burden on the local school districts, which is not a good option, which is one of the least bad options as we look all over the budget for where else we can cut."

But State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) sees political motives. Downstate schools, which can cover large geographic areas, are more dependent on state funding for busses. Barickman said he believes Gov. Quinn is “taking a lick” at downstate districts as he prepares for a re-election run in 2014.

“Those areas tend not to support the governor in election races," Barickman said. "I doubt they're going to support him much next year. He realizes that and thinks it's an easy constituency to target.”

Barickman also said the governor's proposal is just that - a proposal, and that there is still a ways to go in the budgeting process. 

Legislators, not Quinn, get to write the budget and decide how much money to put into education transportation.

cars driving in Illinois
(Jeff Roberson/AP)
May 02, 2013

Illinois Transportation Secretary Doesn't Support Raising Speed Limit

Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider is against raising the speed limit to 70 mph on the state's interstates and tollways.

Schneider said Wednesday that the higher speed limit is a threat to motorists and roads. The Illinois Senate approved a measure 41-6 last week raising the speed limit from 65 mph to 70 mph. The bill awaits a House vote. Gov. Pat Quinn hasn't said whether he'd support the measure.

The State Journal-Register reports that Schneider says the agency is preparing a report for Quinn recommending that he oppose the change.

Bill sponsor Republican state Sen. Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove says the move would put Illinois in line with dozens of states that already have a higher speed limit.

The bill is SB2356

air plane taking off
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
April 25, 2013

Senate Votes to End Furloughs for Air Traffic Controllers

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed by unanimous consent a bill that would end the furloughs of air traffic controllers. 

The furloughs have been blamed for widespread delays at the nation's airports.

The bill passed late Thursday would allow the transportation secretary to move up to $253 million during the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

As NPR's Marilyn Geewax reported this week, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta blamed the furloughs on the automatic spending cuts set into motion by sequestration, the congressionally mandated, across-the-board spending cuts that began taking hold March 1. Marilyn wrote:

"Each furloughed employee must skip one day of work for every two-week pay period. To avoid overloading the remaining controllers, the FAA is allowing fewer departures and landings, particularly during prime times such as mornings when lots of business travelers want to take off. That led to flight delays Monday in areas with crowded airspace, like the New York area."

But as NPR's Tamara Keith reported Thursday, not everyone was buying the administration's explanation.

"This administration is implementing sequestration to cause the most pain on the traveling public that it possibly can," Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said this week.

Early Thursday, it was unclear if the two chambers could pass a fix, as they both leave for recess this weekend.

A vote in the House of Representatives is expected Friday.

air plane taking off
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
April 24, 2013

Lawmakers Critical of FAA Over Furloughs

Republican U.S. Senator Dan Coats of Indiana is criticizing the Federal Aviation Administration over its decision to furlough 15,000 air traffic controllers because of the sequester.

The furloughs have started to cause flight delays.

Speaking on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Coats said the FAA should have looked at cutting back on the amount of money it spends on outside consultants and non-personnel costs.

“Keeping our skies safe and getting our passengers from point-to-point is an essential function,” Coats said. “We need those air traffic controllers, and the plan that has been put forth by the FAA flies in the face of their own judgment and their own statement in terms of what they needed to do.”

Congressman Rodney Davis of Taylorville is among the House Republicans critical of the FAA for its decision to furlough the air traffic controllers.

“The FAA needs to make sure that they actually do what’s best to affect passenger safety positively, and the least passenger interruptions that they can have,” Davis said.

Davis said the agency has the flexibility to make better decisions when administering cuts resulting from the sequester. He is also critical of the FAA for administering the cuts without considering the size of each airport.

The federal government is warning air travelers that the situation with flight delays could change by the hour as it runs the nation's air traffic control system with a smaller staff.

According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which is privy to FAA data, there were 5,800 flight delays across the country for the three-day period beginning Sunday, when the furloughs took effect. Some were caused by weather. The union said that compares with 2,500 delays for the same period a year ago.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is from Peoria, is blaming Congress for forcing government agencies to make tough spending cuts after failing to reach a deficit-reduction plan.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said that if Congress wants to address the effect of automatic spending cuts on the Federal Aviation Administration, “we would be open to looking at that.''

"But that would be a Band-Aid measure," he added. "And it would not deal with the many other negative effects of the sequester, the kids kicked off of Head Start, the seniors who aren't getting Meals on Wheels, and the up to three-quarter of a million of Americans who will lose their jobs or will not have jobs created for them."

Officials estimate the FAA furloughs will save slightly more than $200 million through Sept. 30, a small fraction of the $85 billion in overall reductions that stem from across-the-board cuts, officially known as a sequester, that took effect in March.

Meanwhile, the FAA has also recently outlined its plans to close 149 airport towers across the country by June 15. Airport towers in Illinois that will be impacted by the move are located at St. Louis Regional Airport in East Alton, Central Illinois Regional Airport (CIRA) in Bloomington, the Decatur Airport, Southern Illinois Airport in Carbondale and Waukegan Regional Airport near Chicago.

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