Tom's #Mailbag, Aug. 18, 2017

Tom's #Mailbag, Aug. 18, 2017

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It's another — mostly — infrastructure week in the mailbag. And there's some local, state and national history too.

Questions this week about the different shades of concrete along the new Green Street, the history of Brookens Junior High and teacher pension in Illinois, attracting insect-eating Chimney Swifts, Confederate monuments, traffic signals, turn lanes, railroad crossings and interstate rest areas, MTD properties, bad drivers, speed traps and entry doors.

Controversial monuments

"With all of these statues being torn down, any around here in danger? Any controversial statues?"

There are no monuments to the Confederacy in Illinois, Michigan or Wisconsin, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which reported in April 2016 that there were 1,503 in the United States, and not all of them in the South.

These include, said the SPLC: 718 monuments and statues, nearly 300 of which are in Georgia, Virginia or North Carolina; 109 public schools named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or other Confederate icons; 80 counties and cities named for Confederates; nine official Confederate holidays in six states; and 10 U.S. military bases named for Confederates.

The nearest Confederate-related monuments are in Chicago and at Garfield Park in Indianapolis.

The latter was erected in 1912 by the U.S. government. And according to the Indianapolis Star, it originally was a tombstone marking the mass grave of 1,616 Confederate prisoners of war buried at Greenlawn Cemetery. They had died of sickness and starvation from 1862 to 1865 at the crowded, filthy Camp Morton.

An inscription on the monument reads: "Erected by the United States to mark the burial place of 1,616 Confederate soldiers and sailors who died here while prisoners of war and whose graves cannot now be identified."

There's a similar memorial at Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side of Chicago: a 30-foot granite monument, called Confederate Mound, which marks a mass grave of soldiers captured and held at Camp Douglas, where many died of smallpox and cholera.

Topped by a bronze statue of a Confederate infantry soldier, arms folded across his chest, the monument was dedicated in 1895, with President Grover Cleveland and an estimated 100,000 people attending.

A Confederate monument in St. Louis' Forest Park was dismantled in June.

The only local Confederate-related monument I'm aware of is the grave of a Confederate soldier — J. Newton Shaw — in a cemetery outside of Urbana.

MCORE colors

"On the MCORE project underway on Green Street in Champaign, why are so many (at least three) colors of concrete being used? And why and what for are they using the big boulder-sized stones? It sure seems like a waste of money!"

"There are three types of concrete coloring utilized on the Green Street project," said Kris Koester, spokesman for the Champaign Public Works Department. "The sidewalk color on Green Street is the same that has been required in the Manual of Practice for all new sidewalk work of length within the University District, whether completed as part of a city project or a private development. The vast majority of the street is the basic concrete color you see all around town.

"At intersections along the Green Street corridor where there will be an uncontrolled pedestrian crossing (Locust, Second Street, Third Street), a darker coloring is being used to result in better contrast between the white crosswalk markings and the pavement. The intent is to improve the visibility of the crossing to drivers."

The boulders are intended for decor and small seating areas along the corridor, he said.

MTD properties

"On the subject of the (Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District) and their possible expansion of the multi-modal center downtown, does the MTD pay real estate taxes on at least the portion of the structure that produces rental income (Subway shop, rental rooms, etc.)? Same question in Urbana where they rent out portions of their properties on University Avenue."

From Karl Gnadt, MTD managing director: "As far as leasable tenant space is concerned - MTD does not pay real estate taxes on our property or those occupied by non-tax exempt entities. However, if a taxable entity is leasing space from us, then they pay their own real estate, or lease-hold, taxes. For instance, Subway at Illinois Terminal pays real estate taxes on the square footage that they occupy, but C-CARTS at our maintenance facility in Urbana does not — as the county is also tax-exempt."

Mysterious structure

"What is the white box on a four-post stand used for? It is located in the small field on the southwest corner of Race and Windsor in Urbana."

That, according to a sign posted on it, is a nesting box for Chimney Swifts, small, acrobatic birds that are considered beneficial because they eat about a third of their weight every day in insects, like mosquitoes and flies. Chimney Swifts naturally nest in hollow trees and dark caves, according to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, but when settlers arrived in the United States and began to construct chimneys, silos and wells, the swifts began using those structures.

Traffic signal timing

"What is up with the traffic lights on Curtis between Duncan and Prospect? You can sit at the lights for several minutes at any of them waiting on no cars at all (Curtis/Mattis, especially). The Prospect/Curtis light in particular has become aggravating as it now seems to give the advantage to Prospect. Why? There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the cycles."

"The signals along Curtis operate as actuated signals," said Koester. "Vehicle detection equipment tells the signal when vehicles are approaching or present on both streets, holding the green light for a street or changing over to the other. When operating properly, the signal will change over once there is a gap in the traffic on the street with the green light or when the maximum allowed green time is reached."

But, he added, "there can be times the equipment does not work properly, either failing to detect a vehicle or placing false calls telling the controller there are vehicles on a street when there are none. Both of these examples can delay the light changing.

"On August 7th the Traffic & Lighting section discovered an equipment failure as described above at Mattis and Curtis. It has since been repaired and should be operating as intended."

Koester said that while the department "periodically checks signal equipment and detection, failures can be intermittent and/or dependent on weather and other random factors. As a result observations from the public regarding longer-than-normal delays and other similar issues plays a key role in helping identify intersections to further investigate. Questions or concerns regarding signal operations can be reported to the Traffic & Lighting section of Public Works."

Turn lanes

"I see they are putting turn lanes in on Staley between Windsor and Curtis for the Fields. However, has the city given considerations to also putting turn lanes between Springfield and Windsor. Traffic backs up quickly when cars heading south have to wait for trucks and cars to turn left from Staley, particularly around 4 to 6 at night."

Champaign's Manual of Practice requires developments above a certain size to conduct a traffic impact study before work can begin on the development, said Champaign assistant city engineer Chris Sokolowski.

"One of the items included in the study is an evaluation of the need for turn lanes. The study for the development at Curtis and Staley indicated turn lanes are required and, as a result, the developer is constructing those turn lanes as part of the development," he said. "Back when the developments along Staley Road between Springfield and Windsor were being developed, the Manual of Practice and the traffic impact analysis requirement were not yet in place. If this section of Staley Road were being developed today, turn lanes would very likely be required into the various subdivisions within this section.

"Adding turn lanes to a fully developed and built out two-mile section of roadway would require a rather large capital project. At this time the city's 10-year capital improvements plan does not include a project to add turn lanes to this section of Staley Road. The project would need to compete with various other capital projects, both funded and unfunded, for the city's limited amount of capital improvement funding."

The city updates its 10-year capital improvements plan annually, Sokolowski said.

Railroad crossing

"I read in The News-Gazette about railroad crossing improvements that are planned for Curtis Road (a $74,664 surfacing project at the Curtis Road crossing) in Savoy. Is there any known time frame for those improvements to commence? The materials have already sat off to the side of the crossing for several months now, and the weeds have grown higher than those materials are stacked. I realize that Canadian National operates on their own time schedule, but summer is starting to fade at this point."

"We expect this crossing work to take place this fall. There have not been specific dates scheduled yet," said Patrick Waldron of the Canadian National.

Blocked access doors

"Is there a fire code law that requires a business to keep their front doors unlocked and unblocked during business hours? Visited China Town Buffet (713 Marketview Drive) and only one door was unlocked and would open on each of the three sets of double-doors to get into the place. One of the locked doors on the south side entrance had a gumball machine blocking the exit door. Swift exit to safety is compromised by allowing a business to keep some of the doors locked. Can the city of Champaign Fire Department or building-code inspectors fix this problem?"

The fire department followed up on your concerns and remedied the situation, said Deputy Fire Marshal Randy Smith.

"The Champaign Fire Department routinely receives concerns from the public. While we do complete fire inspections through many of Champaign's businesses, situations can and do occur between those inspections," he said. "Often a visit to the business is the only way we can appropriately assess the situation as the city's adopted fire code differs based on many factors such as the building's use, size and number of occupants.

"I can't stress enough that if someone does have a concern or simply a feeling that something may not be right, please contact the Champaign Fire Department at 403-7200."

The short-lived Brookens Junior High

"Can you provide the history of (Urbana's) Brookens Junior High. Why was it closed, who has used the facility over the years, and how did the county end up with the property."

There's probably no greater local example of boom and bust (except Rantoul and Chanute Air Force Base) than Norris L. Brookens Junior High School.

At the time the Urbana school board proposed a second junior high school in 1969, Urbana Junior High (later known as Fisher Junior High) had 1,500 students in a building with a capacity for 1,400. And the school board was told that enrollment would be 1,750 by 1972.

The city of Urbana was booming, mostly because of employment at the Magnavox plant on the city's east side. Magnavox had big defense and space program contracts, and employment at the Urbana plant peaked at 2,400 in 1969. But a year later as contracts were lost to other companies, Magnavox employment plunged to 900. And in 1971 Magavox announced it was closing its Urbana plant.

Meanwhile, Brookens opened in November 1970 but by December 1974 the school board already has raised the possibility that declining enrollments and severe financial problems would make closing it by 1978 a real possibility.

By 1979 the school district said the two junior high buildings were operating with about half the number of students they were designed to serve. A "Save Brookens" committee was formed, headed by Donald Aldeen, the co-president of the school's PTA.

"Parents are concerned too, because some of them purchased homes in neighborhoods knowing their children would go to Brookens," said Aldeen. "Is it fair to them to close the school and send their children to Fisher?"

Brookens closed as a school in 1980. In 1985 it was sold to an Urbana microelectronics firm for $1.2 million. Champaign County government bought it in 1995. Much of the county government, aside from justice- and correctional-related facilities, is still there.

Teacher retirement contributions

"With all of the talk about Senate Bill 1, why is the state of Illinois responsible for teacher's retirement contributions? They are not state employees. I am sure at some point a deal was struck in the Legislature and somehow Chicago was the only district left responsible for its teacher pensions."

The state pays the vast majority of the "employer cost" for Teacher Retirement System pensions because the state created the retirement system and, under the law, requires all licensed public school teachers outside of Chicago to be members, according to Dave Urbanek, the director of communications for TRS.

"Teachers and school districts have no choice in the matter. It's been that way since 1939," he said.

He said that a statewide public pension system like TRS, "if funded properly, is more cost-effective for taxpayers. The comparison we always use is with local police and fire pension systems. There are thousands of them spread out in every town, township and county. And in those same towns, townships and counties are school districts. The cost of pensions — per taxpayer — in these local police and fire systems is considerably higher than the per-taxpayer cost of the teacher pensions in the same area because the police and fire pension costs are divided only among the taxpayers who live in that particular district. The cost of teacher pensions, on the other hand, is much smaller per taxpayer because the cost is spread among taxpayers statewide."

Teacher pensions have been a statewide public policy in Illinois since 1915, Urbanek said, when the first statewide system took over for thousands of public school pension systems operated throughout Illinois.

"What you have to remember is that in the 1930s and the 1940s, the nature of public education was shifting from rural one-room schools to consolidated districts. In 1935 Illinois had more than 10,000 school districts — most of them one-room schools," he said. "And finally, in the post-Depression years, you'll find that a lot of states created statewide pension systems, not only for teachers, but for other public employees. Spreading out the cost statewide, as I explained above, was one factor. The other was that Social Security was taking hold and at the beginning of Social Security, the federal government wasn't sure that — constitutionally — state and local government employees could be members of Social Security. The feds weren't sure that they could tax the states as the employers of these people. So to compensate, statewide retirement systems were created."

As to why Chicago isn't part of TRS, Urbanek said its teacher pension system was established earlier and the city never opted to join TRS.

Closed rest area

"The rest stop outside of Farmer City has been closed for over a month. Are there any plans to reopen it?"

The reason the Farmer City rest areas are closed has to do with sanitary sewer issues, said Kensil Garnett, region 3 engineer at the Illinois Department of Transportation.

"The problem has been identified and parts are being manufactured to correct the issue. We expect to open the rest areas once the new parts have been installed, which should be in a few weeks," he said.

Champaign drivers service station

"Why doesn't the Champaign DMV have a handicap door? If someone is using a walker it is impossible to get in without physical help."

"The doors at the Champaign driver services facility meet the requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)," said Henry Haupt, a spokesman for Secretary of State Jesse White. "The facility undergoes inspection annually by the city inspector, the state or city fire marshall, or the Department of Labor. All departments assess the facility's doors and accessibility for persons with disabilities."

Failing grade to drivers

"Does anyone flunk a drivers test anymore? I see a lot of bad young drivers."

Yes they do, said Haupt. And he provided numbers.

In 2016, 15 percent of the people who were administered the test at the Champaign driver services facility flunked. And 20 percent of those whose tests were administered by driver education instructors and keyed by facility personnel when loading application failed.

Statewide the percentages are 11 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

Speeding enforcement

"What are the laws locally for whether law enforcement can legally set up to check radar from private property? I have always understood that, unless invited, it is not legal for law enforcement to use private property to set up radar speed enforcement. However, today I observed the Champaign Police Department set up on private property checking speed."

Your understanding is wrong, according to Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz.

"No, there is no legal restriction with regard to officers conducting speed enforcement from private property," she said. "The only legal restriction officers have with regard to the use of radar for speed enforcement is that they cannot set up radar within 500 feet of the speed limit sign."

More parking

"What are they building just east of Texas Roadhouse in Champaign?"

An addition to the parking lot.

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Jsmith68 wrote on August 18, 2017 at 6:08 pm

Incorrect Miss States Attorney. They can't enforce the speed limit within 500 feet of the last decreasing speed limit sign.  Not a regular speed limit sign.

d43 wrote on August 19, 2017 at 10:08 pm

Orbiter wrote on August 19, 2017 at 1:08 pm

The question over businesses leaving front doors locked, and blocking other means of egress, is both serious and seemingly ignored by the fire inspectors in Champaign-Urbana.  I have lost count of the number of instances.  Some of the most egregious include the County Market on Duncan blocking the main exit for the entire produce section at night with shopping carts.  Intentionally.  And WalMart locking up one of their main entrances after 10pm, despite customers entering through it at 9:55 pm (and so reasonably expecting it to be an available exit).  Thanks, Mailbag, for providing the number to call to report apparent violations!