County board Dems tangle over I-57/74 interchange work
URBANA — Some Democrats on the Champaign County Board are feuding over whether county board chair Alan Kurtz's campaign to rebuild the Interstate 57/Interstate 74 interchange is hurting Gov. Pat Quinn and his Transportation Department.
Kurtz and fellow Champaign Democrat Josh Hartke tangled over the interchange reconstruction issue during a caucus of county board Democrats before Tuesday night's county board committee of the whole meeting.
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Kurtz has sent several letters in recent months to Quinn, Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider and other state and local officials, complaining that East Central Illinois is being shortchanged in highway funding and that the 57/74 interchange is unsafe.
In his most recent letter, dated Feb. 6, Kurtz wrote that "District 5 (headquartered in Paris) is lagging way behind in initiatives to fund larger corridor and/or interchange projects" and that "the I-57/74 interchange is one of the most dangerous intersections in Illinois."
Hartke, however, told the county board Democrats, "I don't think that the attacks being made on IDOT and the governor's office about how IDOT funding has been run are fair at all. I think they represent not just misconstrued numbers but a general misunderstanding about how the funding is done around there."
Hartke said that "in District 5, we have the second best interstate system around the state."
Hartke, who worked at the IDOT office in Paris from 2003 to 2006, said "I worked for those people for a long time. They are professional. They are engineers concerned with safety. They live in the communities that they serve so they're not going to be fiddling with political shenanigans regarding funding."
But Kurtz defended his letters to Quinn and IDOT, and said they weren't politically motivated.
"We have a serious safety problem here. It's well known by IDOT. I have not challenged them and I have not attacked the governor," he said. "I have sent him informational letters, asking for help in the highest prone accident interstate intersection in Illinois. They have acknowledged the fact that this is one of the most serious accident intersections in the state of Illinois, and they do not have this funded."
An informational meeting about long-range plans for the I-57/74 interchange is scheduled for 3 p.m. next Wednesday at the county highway department office, 1605 E. Main St., U.
"It seems to me that this project is going forward," added board member Michael Richards, a Champaign Democrat who works for the governor's office in Springfield. "We have a meeting on the 19th."
Kurtz, however, said IDOT has committed only construction engineering funding for the project, which has construction costs estimated as much as $130 million.
The News-Gazette reported earlier this month that there were 249 accidents at the interchange from 2007 through 2012, the greatest number of accidents along I-74 in Champaign-Urbana and 50 percent more than at the next highest, at Prospect Avenue.
Hartke and Richards contended local officials should support a new statewide capital bill and should push for more federal highway funding.
"I think we need to talk about not just attacking the governor and IDOT but we need to encourage any of the legislators in District 5, both federal and state, to push for some capital bills, either state highway bills or a federal transportation bill, rather than attacking a governor that we support during the middle of his election," Hartke said. "The attitude and the approach with the letters I think is failing this county."
"(Rep.) Chad Hays and (Sen.) Chapin Rose were in the paper talking about how bad that intersection is. (Rep.) Naomi Jakobsson and (Sen.) Mike Frerichs were in there. The question is, are you going to vote for a capital bill?" said Richards.
In a press release issued after the caucus, Hartke and Richards said Kurtz should "stop grandstanding" and "stop trying to get his name in the papers over the I-57/I-74 interchange reconstruction and start working constructively with IDOT and the Administration."
Kurtz said he "takes exception to Mister Hartke bringing politics into a public safety issue. Our letters have led to action. We now have the safety signs there and we're resurfacing in the spring the entrance and exit lanes" at the interchange.
Underlying the debate over the interchange is the upcoming primary election race between Kurtz and former county board chair C. Pius Weibel in District 7 in south Champaign. Richards and Hartke are supporting Weibel.
"To me this is about whether we work to have a cooperative relationship with IDOT and the governor's office," Hartke said. "But I think that if the sun rises tomorrow, Mister Kurtz will take credit for it."