CHAMPAIGN - A group of 14 local governmental officials left Wednesday afternoon for a nine-day, taxpayer-subsidized trip to Europe to investigate trolley systems in several smaller European cities.
The trip is estimated to cost $2,250 per person, or a total of $31,500. The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District is picking up half of the cost, while local governments, including the cities of Champaign and Urbana, Champaign County and the University of Illinois, are paying the other half for their officials.
For the six officials associated with MTD, the transit district is paying the entire cost, said Tom Costello, assistant managing director of the MTD. Costello said the Mass Transit District eventually will be reimbursed by the state for half of the overall travel costs.
The trip will include visits and stops in Paris, Caen, Strasbourg and Orleans in France; Brussels, Belgium; and Eindhoven, Netherlands.
Costello said that while the trip might be easy to criticize, it's probably a good idea that local officials see a variety of trolley systems before deciding whether to pursue such a system in Champaign-Urbana.
"The whole concept of the trip is, if the community is going to make a significant public investment, the officials really need to know what's out there, what is available," Costello said. "There are communities our size throughout Europe that have systems our size. There is some new technology out there."
The MTD is hoping for federal funding to help pay for 50 percent to 80 percent of the overall cost of a fixed guideway system for the community, an endeavor that could cost between $50 million and $200 million, depending on the scope of the project.
Those making the trip include Champaign City Council member Tom Bruno and Bruce Knight, Champaign's planning director; Urbana Alderwoman Laura Huth, D-Ward 5, and Urbana city Planner Robert Kowalski; Emory Oney of the Champaign County Alliance; John Dimit, executive director of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission; Pamela Voitik, assistant vice chancellor with the University of Illinois; and Gary Biehl, management engineer, operations and maintenance with the UI.
MTD officials going on the trip include board member Robert Watson and board Chairman George Friedman Jr., MTD Managing Director William Volk, MTD Director of Management Information Rena Lenz, MTD Director of Service Delivery Robert Patton and MTD Director of Maintenance David Moore.
Bruno said he's anxious to see some of the "rubber-tired trolley" systems in Europe, which are a cheaper alternative to traditional steel-railed, steel-wheeled trolley systems, such as the system in place in Portland, Ore., and one being built in Tacoma, Wash.
Bruno and many of the other local officials visited Portland earlier this fall on another taxpayer-funded two-day trip.
"I think it'll be real interesting to see how it really works in real communities our size," Bruno said. "I'm not a real strong advocate of rubber tire trolleys. I would prefer a traditional street car system on steel rails."
Rubber-tired trams or trolleys use a single rail or sensors in the street for direction. They are a newer, less proven technology but also less expensive.
Bruno said he's already hearing comments about the trip being a junket, but he denies that's the case.
"I've gotten enough razzing from my friends to know there's a certain amount of raised eyebrows when people go to Europe," Bruno said. "The fact is it's cheaper to go to Europe than it is to go to Portland. I'm taking one and a half weeks off from my law practice to kick the tires on trolley cars. It is an investment in our time."
Bruno said Champaign-Urbana can't expect to receive tens of millions of dollars in federal grants for a trolley system if the community isn't willing to do its homework in investigating different kinds of trolley systems.
"We have to establish first a leading preferred alternative," he said. "This trip is a necessary part of establishing a leading preferred alternative."
Huth, the Urbana alderwoman, said she also believes the trip is justified.
"If we're going to be plunging millions into building a system here, I want to be sure we pick the right system for our needs," she said. "Europe is so far ahead of the U.S. in these sorts of systems, I think this is a great place to go to find out if it's working."
Costello said that during the Jan. 8 through 16 trip, the group will only have two afternoons and evening to themselves.
"They're not there to be sightseeing," he said. "They're there to look at alternatives to see what's in the best interests of our community when we're looking at making a significant public investment."
Costello also noted that MTD officials picked January to make the trip because that is cheapest time for travel to Europe. Round-trip air fare is $580 per person, he said.
The mass transit district is considering installing a trolley system that would connect the downtowns in Champaign and Urbana and the campus area. Roughly speaking, Costello said the cost of a trolley system would be about $10 million per mile. Grant monies could cover up to 80 percent of the total cost, though Costello said "it seldom approaches" that percentage in most cases.
One significant advantage Champaign-Urbana has is that the MTD system carries 30,000 passengers per day between the two downtowns and the campus area.
Champaign-Urbana's ridership last year was about equal to the total mass transit ridership in Indianapolis, a city of 731,000 people, Costello said.
Itinerary for Europe trip
Following are highlights of the itinerary for the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District-sponsored trip to Europe for 14 local officials.
Thursday, Jan. 9.
Arrive in Paris at 7:55 a.m.
Check in Hotel Sofitel Paris La Defense after lunch. Free time.
Friday, Jan. 10.
Visit city of Caen, France, and Bombardier rubber-tired trolley.
Train to Caen leaves at 8:40 a.m. Return to Paris at 6:53 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 11.
Visit city of Orleans, France, and Alstrom Tram System.
Train to Orleans leaves at 9:21 a.m. and arrives back in Paris at 5:31 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 12.
Leave for Brussels, Belgium at 10:55 a.m. Lunch and possibly a meeting with rail officials. If no meeting, free time in central Brussels.
Leave by bus to Eindhoven, Netherlands at 4 p.m. Arrive at 7 p.m.
Carlton de Brug Hotel in Eindhoven.
Monday, Jan. 13.
Visit Phileas rubber-tired vehicle and Eindhoven system.
Between 2 and 3 p.m., leave by bus to Strasbourg, France. Arrive at Hotel Le Parc at 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Jan. 14.
Visit Trans Lohr rubber-tired vehicle and Strasbourg Tram System.
Spend night at Hotel Le Parc.
Wednesday, Jan. 15.
Return to Paris. Arrive at 11:58 a.m.
Free time. Spend evening at Hotel Sofitel Paris La Defense.
Thursday, Jan. 16.
Leave hotel at noon.
Arrive at O'Hare Airport at 4:55 p.m. Private bus to Champaign-Urbana.