CHAMPAIGN — Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District trustees on Wednesday unanimously approved an agreement with the University of Illinois to pay 10 percent of the cost of a consultant to recommend a business plan and a governance structure for Willard Airport.
The study is expected to cost no more than $150,000 and will be completed by the end of the year, said UI Associate Chancellor Mike DeLorenzo. He called the timetable "aggressive."
Under the terms of the intergovernmental agreement, the consultant and a Willard Airport Community Task Force are to consider recommendations for shared governance "with options for additional community funding for Willard Airport generated by business and/or local governments."
"We've had discussions and the MTD makes sense. They are obviously experts in transportation and they have the ability to do this," DeLorenzo said.
MTD board members said they supported the effort but, in the words of Ron Peters, "I think it's going to be a real uphill slog."
"I'm kinda pessimistic about what's going to work out," said fellow board member Margaret Chaplan. "But I think it's very worthwhile to find out about the magnitude of the problem and what it would really take to do something about it. I think any information we can get from this process would be valuable."
Board chairman Don Uchtmann called Willard "very important to our community and important to the quality of life and important to our economy and our economic development."
"I too see the challenge that lies ahead of us," he said, "but I am convinced that through the university and the task force this community is putting its best foot forward to handle the challenges of air transportation."
Board member Linda Bauer said, "I think it's really important for this community to have an airport and as much as we can do to retain or grow that, I think that's important. And I think MTD is an appropriate player to have here."
Alan Nudo, a Champaign businessman and former Champaign County Board member who is on the task force, noted that ADM is moving its corporate headquarters from Decatur to Chicago "because they could not get where they want go internationally to travel and do their business.
"We have a possibility here of going one way or another. We can be Decatur or we can somewhere in between a regional hub or less. Transportation is absolutely essential to attract the best and the brightest to the university, for research dollars and for job growth, job retention and population growth."
Earlier this month, Urbana campus Chancellor Phyllis Wise told The News-Gazette that the UI is "trying to work out an organizational structure (for Willard) that will work for this community, because we realize that a really good airport is so important to people being able to get in and out of the city. We're working on whatever it will take, whatever organizational structure it will take, to be able to do that."
Whether that means hiring an airport management company or establishing a new local governmental body to run it, Wise said, "We're thinking about all sorts of different alternatives."
MTD sets records
Mass Transit District buses carried record numbers of riders on two consecutive days this month.
The MTD carried 67,847 passengers on Jan. 21, and followed that up a day later with 70,843 riders.
The records were set on days when University of Illinois students had returned to campus, Champaign-Urbana public schools were in session and daily highs were in the 20s, lows were near zero but there was little or no new snowfall.
Ridership on both days was more than the system's previous one-day high of 67,444 set last March.
"We really have been fortunate. We've been able to handle these increase so far because the technology in our control center allows our dispatchers to get buses to stops that are overcapacity. We can get an extra bus out there before that bus is overloaded," said Karl Gnadt, the MTD's managing director designate. "So far we've been able to stay on top of it. But that's not going to last forever. At some point in the future we're going to have to start taking steps to accommodate those increases."
December ridership was about 1 million, 14.8 percent greater than the total in December 2012. It also was the 16th month in a row that the MTD set a ridership record.
Also at Wednesday's monthly MTD meeting:
— The MTD board approved the annexation of the Windsor West apartment complex and the Stephens Family YMCA in southwest Champaign. The annexation had been blocked for months until the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District formally dissolved late last year. Although the area already is getting service it won't be paying property taxes until the spring of 2015.
— Gnadt was asked to come to February's board meeting with a plan to annex a number of other areas into the MTD, probably including the Sawgrass and Boulder Ridge subdivisions in Champaign, the Stone Creek and Southridge subdivisions in Urbana and possibly more.
— The board authorized the MTD staff to apply for a state grant to purchase property adjacent to its maintenance facility on East University Avenue in Urbana. The land eventually could be used for driver training. It's unclear how much land would be acquired and how much it would cost, Gnadt said.
— Gnadt said the Illinois Public Transportation Association is proposing new language for operating assistance for downstate systems. Instead of an automatic increase of 10 percent in funding every year, the systems would be limited to an increase matching the consumer price index.
"We see that as a target on our back and so we want to be the ones coming to the Legislature to say that we want to adjust this and make it more a realistic growth," he said. "In early conversations with legislators, we've gotten support for that and we're hoping it will continue to move forward and we'll be able to make that change on our own rather than having the change forced upon us."