Champaign County First group heads to D.C. to lobby for federal funds


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CHAMPAIGN — As part of a lobbying effort to get federal support for area projects, members of the Champaign County First group headed to Washington, D.C., this week to lobby for projects like The Yards in Champaign, extending the Kickapoo Trail to Urbana and piloting a program that could help villages like Royal.

More than a dozen Champaign County business and government leaders spent Tuesday and Wednesday in the nation's capital, advocating to Illinois Democratic Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, as well as Reps. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville. It was part of a yearly trip for countywide officials to pitch projects and initiatives that could use federal help.

From gripes about Amtrak service to the Mahomet Aquifer and other smaller projects, officials walked up and down the Capitol and congressional offices to rub shoulders with federal officials who just might be able to help.

For Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin, direct contact with people in the federal government is "invaluable." It's why she tries to go on these trips as often as she can.

"A lot of times they don't necessarily have the ability to do anything, but they can connect you with the people who can," Marlin said of meeting with federal officials. "I really value these face-to-face interactions because they really get to understand the issues and things important to our community. The more you go, the more they recognize you and understand the projects and remember what you're talking about."

At the top of the list for Urbana officials is getting support for an extension to the Kickapoo Rail Trail, which currently only reaches the far East side of the city. It's important, Marlin said, to "reinforce the need" the community has, as well as to get more ideas on sources of funding to get projects like it done.

One massive project affecting many communities in the county is the mapping of the Mahomet Aquifer. Champaign council member Tom Bruno said he saw firsthand how trips like these, and the connections one makes on them, can help projects along.

"We talked about a very futuristic way to map the Mahomet Aquifer with Senator Tammy Duckworth," Bruno said. "Steven Brown of the Illinois State Geological survey had a proposal to fly helicopter flights over the entire aquifer area and use this giant contraption to detect underground minerals, water and so forth. Duckworth suggested she might be able to put us in touch with the Illinois National Guard about mapping the aquifer with the help of the helicopter trainees."

It's something that wouldn't have happened had Champaign officials not gone to D.C., Bruno said.

Along with the aquifer mapping, Champaign city officials had a few more projects for which to advocate. Champaign Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight said he spoke about the multimillion-dollar The Yards project in downtown Champaign, which could bring a hotel, apartments and hockey arena to the city's core.

The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District has been seeking federal money to help in their part of that project, which would double the size of the Illinois Terminal and connect it to the mixed-use project downtown, and were in Washington last week to plead their case.

Knight said he was there to push federal officials again, but also to call on them to act on slow Amtrak service.

"We've been working hard the last few years to address the issues of timeliness and reliability of Amtrak service to our community," Knight said. "We were there to push the Canadian National Railway and Amtrak to work together and approve the use of CN lines to better our service."

Federal law says railways have to prioritize passenger lines, a rule that Canadian National and other rail companies have been ignoring, Knight said. Delays, long wait times and a lack of room are problems that are currently plaguing the Illinois Terminal, he said.

Whether the city gets expanded service to Chicago or not, Knight said, the expansion of the terminal is necessary to address packed waiting areas and to improve overall service.

And though county representatives went to Washington for meetings with federal officials, some said traveling and working alongside other leaders in the county on the trip is just as valuable.

"It's easy to go on these kinds of trips," Bruno said. "You know, you're moving from point to point, riding a metro together, conversations going every different direction. You really get an idea of the concerns that people from Champaign and Urbana and other places have, and how they can possibly even match up and get it worked out. Everyone learns from each other."

Knight said traveling with area leaders is probably one of the "greatest side benefits to these trips."

"We've been doing these for quite a few years," Knight said. "And over that time things like the Kickapoo Rail Trail extension through the county really were brought to fruition because of Champaign County First. It's a real benefit for all of us to work together and advocate with a common voice."