Tom's #Mailbag, Jan. 4, 2019

Tom's #Mailbag, Jan. 4, 2019

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Interesting week at the Mailbag: questions about congressional pay during the government shutdown, where Champaign's minor league ballpark was more than 100 years ago, how much it would cost Amtrak to build its own tracks from Chicago to Champaign, why Champaign isn't a party to the Carle property tax trial, bad news about the widening of the Kirby Avenue bridge over I-57, the Legionnaires' disease testing in Champaign, the downtown Champaign hotel project and a new grocery store for Urbana.

Plus, another big year for construction in Champaign, pedestrian countdown clocks, the oldest News-Gazette and street lighting.


Could Amtrak build a rail line?

"How much would it cost to buy Amtrak its own set of tracks between Champaign and Chicago so that the commuter trains wouldn't get stuck behind the Canadian National freight trains and the Amtrak trains could go their maximum speed of 80 miles an hour?"

First off, Amtrak does have the authority to purchase right of way and build its own tracks, said Rick Harnish, who is the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.

And there is plenty of space to add a set of tracks to replace that set that was removed by the Canadian National Railroad.

But no estimate has been made of how much it would cost, said Harnish and others contacted.

But we can offer a rough guess of the cost, based on what Amtrak did on its 284-mile Chicago to St. Louis corridor over the last eight years. In that project Amtrak installed new rails, concrete ties and other improvements in order to allow for the operation of 110 mph trails. It was funded largely by federal economic stimulus dollars allotted during President Barack Obama's administration at a cost of $1.95 billion.

Since that project is about twice the length of the 127-mile Chicago to Champaign route, let's say this one would be a billion dolars, allowing for inflation.

One more estimate: in 2013 a feasibility study was done of the cost of a 220 mph rail line between Chicago O'Hare Airport to downtown Chicago to Champaign-Urbana and on to St. Louis and/or Indianapolis. It would include two dedicated, electrified main tracks that were fully grade separated from other transportation modes, meaning it likely would be elevated over its entire route.

"The total cost to build the alignment would range from $22 billion to $50 billion (or from $20 billion to $39 billion for those portions of the alignment that are within Illinois), depending on the use of elevated track or track on retained fill," the study said.

Retained fill, the report said, refers to the use of retaining walls to support fill where the tracks are above grade.

At speeds of 220 mph, the report said, an express train could run from O'Hare to downtown Chicago in 10 minutes and in another 45 minutes to Champaign-Urbana. It would take another 33 minutes to arrive in Springfield and a total of two hours and 20 minutes to make it to downtown St. Louis.


Minor league baseball park

"Do you have an exact location of where the Champaign Velvets played?"


The Champaign Velvets were a Class D minor league baseball team that was part of the short-lived Illinois-Missouri League. The Velvets existed in Champaign from 1912 to 1914 and they played their games, newspaper stories and ads said, at League Park. But exactly where League Park was was never identified.

The only clue we have are the 1912 and 1914 city directories which said that there was a "Base Ball Park (I.M. League)" at 1400 W. Hill St. in Champaign.

At that time 1400 W. Hill St. was far outside the Champaign city limits. The nearest group of homes was in the 800 block of West Hill (around Prospect Avenue).

Today, 1400 W. Hill is approximately where Hill Street dead-ends into Sabin Avenue, behind Huber's West End Store and Ruth's Salon. That likely would put the "base ball park" between Sabin and Garfield avenues, amid a collection of homes, yards and garages in west Champaign.

Here's a link to a column I wrote in 2014 about minor league baseball in Champaign-Urbana ...


Oldest News-Gazette

"What is the oldest News-Gazette paper that you know of?"

If you are talking of the first Champaign News-Gazette, that was on Sunday, Dec. 14, 1919 when The Champaign Daily News and The Champaign Daily Gazette merged.

The first-ever newspaper in Champaign County was the Urbana Union which published its first edition on Sept. 25, 1852. The Union eventually became The Central Illinois Gazette, which eventually became The Champaign Daily Gazette.

You can find all of these old newspapers on microfilm at the University of Illinois History, Philosophy and Newspaper Library on the second floor of the Graduate Library at 1408 W. Gregory Drive, Urbana.


Carle lawsuit and Champaign

"Why is the city of Champaign not a party to the Carle lawsuit? There are several substantial Carle properties in that city as well. If they lose, will Carle make a vindictive move out of Urbana and into Champaign?"

As The News-Gazette's Deb Pressey wrote last week, this case is focused on only four Urbana properties: Carle Foundation Hospital, Carle's north tower (now part of the main hospital), the Carle power plant and The Caring Place day care center.

And it's this side of impossible to think that Carle would pick up and move a 413-bed hospital, a clinic, a satellite clinic, an occupational medicine building, a heart and vascular clinic and a breast cancer institute, all of which are in Urbana.

Meanwhile, here's a link to the full story about the current case before the court ...


Legionnaires' disease testing

"Whatever happened to the report releasing the outcome of the recent testing for Legionnaires disease? It seems unfair that the health department only released the name of First Christian Church, but refused to name the other two locations being tested."

We had to file a Freedom of Information Act to get it but the Illinois Department of Public Health said that its environmental investigation and sampling took place only at the church at 3601 S. Staley Road. No other locations were tested by IDPH.

"This environmental investigation was conducted in response to three confirmed cases of Legionnaires' disease associated with the facility," said a Dec. 6 letter to a church official.

The letter said that two water samples and two swab samples were taken from a water feature at the church and that Legionella pneumophilia was detected in one water sample from a fountain basin.

On Oct. 19, the letter said, IDPH issued a notice "to close the water feature (to be drained and isolated from the public) and take immediate measure to disinfect" it.

"As of this writing (Dec. 6), IDPH has not received a responsive plan from First Christian Church with respect to modifying the water feature or modifying the use and operation of the water feature consistent with regulatory requirements," the letter said. "IDPH maintains its Order that the water feature remain closed, empty and inoperable."


Kirby overpass needs widening

"Are there any traffic studies that would indicate the traffic on West Bradley Avenue on the bridge over I-57 compared with traffic over I-57 on West Kirby Avenue? I understand that the Bradley Avenue bridge is in the planning stages to be widened. It seems to me the more traffic would be on West Kirby."

Sad to report that last fall Champaign officials met with the Illinois Department of Transportation regarding the Kirby Avenue and I-57 overpass and got some bad news.

The Kirby Avenue overpass project had been scheduled for work in fiscal year 2022.

But, according to a memo to Champaign City Council members this week, "IDOT informed the city that since previous repairs to the structure were funded with federal bridge funds, policy dictates the improvements must remain in place for a period of 15 years before the bridge would be eligible for federal bridge replacement funds. Based on this, the earliest IDOT anticipates a Kirby Avenue overpass improvement taking place is in FY 2027."


Street switches

"Some of the streets near schools in Champaign switch traffic direction during the school day. I frequently see cars unaware of or ignoring this to drive against one-way traffic. Is there a reason these streets switch? It seems like it would be safer if the flow was more consistent."

From Kris Koester, a spokesman for the Champaign Public Works Department: "The city of Champaign works closely with the school district to come up with school zone traffic plans that are both efficient and safe for students. Sometimes, the best solution is to make a block or two of a particular street one-way during school drop-off and pick-up. This allows traffic to move more efficiently through the drop-off zone and makes it easier for students to cross the street.

"In each of these cases, the city has installed One-Way and Do Not Enter signs that can be flipped up and down by school personnel at the appropriate times. These times typically last for around 30 minutes, and are at a time when most of the traffic in the area is school related. Drivers are required to abide by these signs just as they would any other traffic control signs."


Pedestrian countdowns

"Some countdown traffic lights turn to yellow immediately after 0, while others have a delay. Why are there differences?"

It's just a function of the controllers and how the lights work, Koester said.

"The 'walk' and 'don't walk' timings are determined based on the smallest cycle length pedestrian time. The coordinated phase walk time is allowed to get larger on larger cycle lengths but the side street is only allowed to use the pedestrian walk times of the shortest cycle," he said. "The countdown flashing 'don't walk' portion is also fixed on the shorter cycle length. As of now, the only option we have is choosing which direction gets the variable walk time (i.e. which direction gets a countdown to 0 and a delay vs. which gets an immediate yellow)."


North Prospect lighting

"Any plans to improve the street lighting on the North Prospect area of town?"

There are no lighting improvement projects in the city's current 10-year capital improvement project, Koester said.


North Cunningham construction

"What are they building on Cunningham Avenue in Urbana right next to Carle's Medical Supply store?"

A building permit was issued on Oct. 11, 2018, to El Progreso, for construction of a single story grocery store at 1302 N. Cunningham Ave., said John Schneider, Urbana's community development services director.


Downtown construction

"I noticed fencing has been put up in the last week around some of the buildings to the north of the Hill Street parking garage. Are those coming down as part of the hotel that is planned in downtown?"

The fencing you noticed is at 122 W. Hill St. This building (formerly the Champaign Elks Lodge and more recently a Rosecrance residential treatment center) is being partially demolished to make way for an addition and a remodel of the existing building for new apartments, said Larry Happ, Champaign's building safety supervisor.

The hotel is planned for the empty parking lot site at the corner of Hill and Neil, he said. No building permit application has been submitted for the hotel yet, but Rob Kowalski of Champaign's planning department said the city closed on the property on Dec. 14.

He said it's expected that developer (and former Illinois basketball star) Doug Altenberger of 401 N Neil St LLC will soon announce more details on the hotel project, such as brand and design. Construction is expected to start this spring.

And one more nugget from Larry Happ: Champaign issued $238 million in construction valuation for 2018, the 2nd highest in the last 10 years. Highest was $243 million in 2014.


Government shutdown

"As my wife, a scientist at the USGS Illinois Water Science Center in Urbana, enters her second week of no pay thanks to the Republican shutdown, I was wondering if (U.S. Rep.) Rodney Davis is receiving his congressional paycheck during the shutdown or if he is refusing to receive any pay until the federal workers in his district have their compensation restored?

"Also, do you know whether Davis supports backpay for federal workers who are furloughed as a result of this shutdown?"

Yes, Congress is being paid during the government shutdown.

We don't know if Congressman Davis is taking his pay or whether he supports backpay for furloughed workers because his office did not respond to emails, text messages or phone calls.

We do know that Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and former UN ambassador in the Trump administration, says Congress should not be paid.

But she waited until Democrats took over the House of Representatives to take this stand on Twitter: "Today the new Congress takes office. No member should get paid while the government is shut down and border security is not funded. #DoYourJob"


Sexual harassment by officer

"What happened with the U of I police sexual harassment issues re Officer (Brian) Tison?"

Tison was accused of inappropriate behavior with female recruits at the department.

Here's a link to reporter Julie Wurth's original story about the investigation ...

And here's a response from Craig A. Stone, executive director of public safety and chief of police at the University of Illinois:

"While we are unable to comment on specific disciplinary matters, as has been reported in The News-Gazette, we have taken steps to reorganize certain department functions and practices where our campus Title IX office identified issues. We also brought in a senior staff member from the Title IX office to provide sexual harassment training for all supervisors, and officers received training in their daily briefing sessions.

"I think it is important to note that we have not received any complaints of harassment from members of the general public. This is an issue that has affected our department internally, but not one that has affected our service to the community. Sexual harassment is an issue in workplaces across the country, and culture change takes time. These are the first steps in our proactive effort to accelerate that culture change here."


Golden Corral

"Is Golden Corral still coming to Champaign?"

Yes, construction is to start this spring.

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