Tom Kacich | Capital program full of benefits for area

Tom Kacich | Capital program full of benefits for area

For an area that has been the recipient of so much government largesse — three interstate highways, a land grant university in Urbana, a federal airfield in Rantoul, a veterans hospital and state prison in Danville and a construction engineering research center in Champaign — people here still can get quite enraged about any level of government spending.

It will happen again once the sources of funding for Illinois' new $45 billion capital program — backed partly with a doubling of the gas tax that goes into effect on July 1 — kick in.

But know this: East Central Illinois will get more than its share of the proceeds. It always has, whether it's state "member initiatives" or federal "earmarks" to renovate the Virginia Theatre, for a rebuild of King School in Urbana, for an extension of Fourth Street in Champaign or for repairs to Danville Stadium.

Recall more than 100 years ago when Rantoul got Chanute Field, and years later when in the middle of a Depression and a slowdown in federal spending on defense, U.S. Rep. D.C. Dobbins, a Champaign Democrat, somehow got Congress to invest more money in the airfield in the middle of nowhere. That kept Chanute alive.

The same thing happened 40 years later when U.S. Rep. Ed Madigan, a Lincoln Republican, helped keep the Air Force base from moving to Denver.

The capital bill the Legislature approved means $100 million for construction of a math, statistics and data science center at the University of Illinois-Urbana; $195 million for other unspecified improvements at the UI; $118 million for a new science building at Eastern Illinois University; $2.2 million for renovation of a clock tower center and ornamental horticulture facility at Danville Area Community College; and $100 million for unspecified passenger rail improvements on the Chicago to Carbondale Amtrak route.

Buried deeper in the bill are a number of smaller local projects:

► $50,000 for amenities and accessibility improvements on the west end of the Kickapoo Rail Trail in Urbana.

► $93,000 for an energy savings project in Urbana.

► $44,000 to the University YMCA for the installation and renovation of accessible bathrooms.

► $51,000 to the Danville Family YMCA for air conditioning renovation.

► $50,000 to Oakwood for renovation of its city hall.

► $50,000 to Westville for improvements to Zamberletti Park.

► $30,000 to Fithian for park and playground improvements.

► $100,000 to Parkland College for safety improvements in a chemistry lab.

► $100,000 to Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation for new program space for its afterschool program and summer day camps.

► $75,000 for facility improvements at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center.

► $250,000 for a grant to the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club for help building the Martens Community Center in north Champaign.

► $93,000 for lighting improvements in Urbana.

► $400,000 to repave Vine and Washington streets in Urbana.

► $2.18 million for unspecified sewer system upgrades in Champaign.

 

Marlin: 'We're grateful'

On a somewhat related topic, money to finally rebuild a historic railroad trestle on the Vermilion County side of the Kickapoo Rail Trail has been "unfrozen" after it had been suspended by the administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner. It could go out for construction bids later this summer.

"We're grateful for the legislator initiatives and for any and all funding in the state capital bill. We've estimated the total value of city of Urbana infrastructure (sewers, streets, sidewalks, lighting, facilities, etc.) to be approximately $1.2 billion but we are able to invest only $8.8 million annually to repair and replace these assets, less than 1 percent of the value," said Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin. "This investment falls far short of what is needed to maintain our valuable infrastructure.

"The federal and state motor fuel tax hasn't changed in over 20 years, while construction costs have skyrocketed. Cities depend on state and federal funds (our tax dollars) for capital improvements. We cannot build and maintain our infrastructure with local revenue alone."

State Sen. Scott Bennett, the Champaign Democrat who successfully placed several projects into the capital bill, said the demand for help was greater than the funds available, at least now.

"Every senator and rep started to receive dozens if not hundreds of requests when there are rumors of a capital bill coming down," he said. "The needs far exceed the money available."

 

'People hate pork'

Bennett said he tried to fund smaller requests "to make the money stretch farther. Fifty thousand dollars doesn't do much for the U of I but it enables the village of Westville to basically remake its park."

But there's still money in the capital bill that can go to other projects, he said.

"One that's important to me is moving the swine facility from the (UI) Research Park. It's basically bisecting the Research Park and not allowing it to grow," he said. "And the secondary issue is that it's really an antiquated facility."

Bennett said part of the goal of the capital bill is "big ideas that can be game-changers for communities and institutions."

Think projects that need a jump-start, like a revamped Champaign County jail system or drainage improvements in the Garden Hills section of Champaign.

"People hate pork," Bennett noted, "but usually it depends what it's for. If it's for something to benefit a legislator, then that's a terrible thing. But if it's for something that means that property taxes don't go up for a big project, then that's a better way to do it."

Another part of the capital bill includes more money for local governments to undertake road projects that are in high demand. Champaign County government, for example, is expected to see its share of motor fuel tax money increase from $2.2 million a year to $3.3 million. And municipal governments in Champaign County should see an annual increase from $4.3 million to $6.5 million.

Tom Kacich's column appears on Sundays in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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