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Quite a variety of topics in this week's Mailbag including how soon Illinois will enact recreational marijuana, how a truck driver was able to fire ball bearings at passing motorists on I-74, how often interstate rest areas are closed to the public, why there are shipping containers along State Street in Champaign and whether those really are weather stations in Mahomet at a place where the buffalo roamed.

Also, a school zone in Champaign where there isn't a school, the University of Illinois policy on new construction, black bands around wooden utility poles and the future of Champaign's Toys R Us store.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Mailbag staff.

"How in the world did Mr. Kevin Lee Casey shoot a slingshot at a moving vehicle and still drive his own truck at the same time?"

For those unfamiliar Casey is the Janesville, Wis., truck driver accused of using a slingshot and metal balls to shatter windows of vehicles he passed on Interstate 74. Although he was charged in connection with three incidents, Illinois State Police reported there were about 45 window-shatterings between late March and June 1 this year, when Casey was arrested.

Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz said this week that investigators didn't ask Casey how he used the slingshot to damage passing vehicles.

"When they finally located and stopped him he had a simple, handheld slingshot in his truck and various sizes of ball bearings. There was nothing terribly sophisticated about it," she said. "I don't know that they were trying to get the details about how he did it. He admitted he did it."

Casey is expected to plead guilty, perhaps as early as next month, and to face a prison term on the charges. A 3-year-old boy was cut by flying glass in one of the incidents, which occurred May 2.

I-74 completion

"Will I-74 be done by December?"

It's pretty much done now.

"The completion date is November 15, and the roadway will be done by then," said Kensil Garnett, the Region 3 engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation. "The final pavement striping (thermoplastic) will be completed next year because the temperatures are now too low to place the material.

"There is a small problem with the new LED lights that will take a little time to reorder some parts."

Interstate rest area closures

"I drive to work on I-57 five days a week. It seems to me that both the northbound and southbound rest stops near Pesotum are frequently closed. I've lost count how many times it has been closed in the last five years. Sometimes the reason is obvious (construction/remodeling), while other times it remains a mystery. When open, both rest stops are overflowing with semi trucks every morning.

"Can you find out how many times these rest stops have been closed in the last five years?"

We got the following response from Garnett at IDOT.

"From Aug. 31, 2011, until Aug. 22, 2018, the southbound rest area on I-57 at Pesotum was closed for 482 days," he said. "Those closures were for sewer and septic issues, plumbing and heating issues, power outages, restroom remodel projects, failed water system issues, floor stripping and waxing, concrete patching projects, and a blizzard.

"From Sept. 1, 2011, until Aug. 24, 2018, the northbound rest area on I-57 at Pesotum was closed for 648 days. Those closures were for a septic mound replacement project, restroom remodel projects, septic issues, power outages, failed water system issues, floor stripping and waxing, concrete patching projects, and a blizzard."

Garnett said that when IDOT's Rest Area Study team met with the Transportation Secretary and executive management team in September, "we used both the Illini Prairie (Pesotum) and Salt Kettle (between Danville and Oakwood on I-74) rest areas as examples regarding why our past practice of continually making small repairs to the rest areas is inefficient and causes many problems for the districts, the public and our workshops.

"It is much more cost effective and quicker to close a location and make all of the needed repairs at one time versus closing once a year for three to four months and repeating this process for five or six years to make all of the needed improvements. Unfortunately the disrepair of our facilities and our small capital budget have made these major refurbish projects impossible to fund."

He said that the state rest area study is nearly complete.

"Once it is done we will provide the final report to the executive management team along with a significant budget request to begin the rebuild/refurbish process for our entire system. If that is approved and funded, we can then rebuild one rest area at a time versus small projects over many years."

Freed to smoke weed

"I know Governor-elect (J.B.) Pritzker has said that he hopes to legalize recreational marijuana 'right away,' and that it wouldn't require a vote (by the public), just legislation passed by lawmakers in the General Assembly. So my question is, how much longer do I have to wait to puff the ole magic dragon in the peace of my home? Come on Tom, give me some good news."

It may not happen fast enough for you to consider this good news, but state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, said that he expects legislation to clear the General Assembly early this spring.

"To put an exact date on it is premature but I think Pritzker said last week that he hopes it is one of the first things he wants to do. I don't hear anybody in the Legislature really criticizing it at this point," Bennett said. "Sure we want to do it thoughtfully but this is yet another revenue source that we can talk about. After passing medical marijuana here you can see that there are ways we can regulate it and do it in a professional setting."

Bennett said that Illinois can learn from the experiences in larger states like California, although the biggest problem is still that the federal government considers marijuana a Schedule 1 narcotic. That means that, for example, marijuana businesses are reluctant to put their money in a bank for fear that it could be seized. Instead they have large safes on their premises.

"Now that we have a governor saying, 'I'll sign it if it gets to my desk,' I wouldn't be surprised if you see it fairly early on in the next session," which will start in January.

After that, though, it may have to wait a year or so to implement the law.

It took California more than a year to finally allow recreational sales (Jan. 1, 2018) after voters passed Proposition 64, which cleared the way.

"You look at California or New Jersey and some of the states that are doing it now. I think we can borrow from them and avoid mistakes and speed up the implementation," Bennett said.

Shipping containers for storage

"There are a number of what look like shipping containers accumulating at the southwest corner of Cedar and State (in Champaign), in a parking lot there. What gives?"

Champaign Building Safety Supervisor Larry Happ said they're being used to store materials for some cosmetic updating of the Hilton Garden Inn and the Homewood Suites across State Street. The containers should be gone by February, he said.

New campus building

"In last week's paper, it reported there will be a $75 million engineering building just west of Grainger Library to open in 2021. I thought the University of Illinois was committed to renovating old buildings and not building new buildings?"

The UI policy doesn't prohibit the construction of new buildings. Its goal is to build new buildings but only after offsetting them with demolished space, said Urbana campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

"We've done that with a number of buildings, so that space will be applied to a new structure when we build," she said.

She included a link to the campus' "net zero space growth policy."

The Illinois Climate Action Plan says: "In July 2015, the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus enacted a Net Zero Space Growth Policy — effectively putting a ceiling on the total area of the building space campus may own or occupy at about 23 million square feet. In addition to curbing sprawl, campus also hopes to restrain runaway carbon emissions from ineffective space use."

School zone where the school is gone

"The stretch of University Avenue in Champaign between James and McKinley that runs along the Dr. Howard School site still has all the signage up warning that it's a school zone. Since the site is past the demolition phase and will be under construction for several years why is it still listed as a school zone? On top of that, at least once a week there is a Champaign Police officer sitting there doing traffic enforcement and pulling people over. Are they getting citations for speeding in a school zone, even though there aren't school children present?

Champaign Public Works spokesman Kris Koester responded that the city decided "it does no harm for the signs to remain in place. The advance warning flashers have been disabled and the remaining school zone signs explicitly state that the speed limit is in effect only 'on school days when children are present.' Since there are no children present on school days and the flashers are not active, the school speed zone is not active."

And if people are being pulled over, he said, "it is likely that they are driving faster than the posted 30 mph speed limit."

"I was eating at Jimmy John's at the corner of Bloomington Road and Prospect Avenue in the seats along the window, when I noticed a stop light facing my direction. I felt like I should be eating when it was green and stopping when it turned red. Did someone just forget to turn the light in the correct direction or this someone's idea of a new diet?"

As odd as it may look, the light "is correctly placed for vehicular traffic control for those turning east on to Bloomington Road from Prospect Avenue, which is why it is visible from the nearby restaurant," Koester said.

"Since Bloomington Road intersects Prospect Avenue at an angle, the right turn is offset from the main intersection. Once a vehicle enters the area to make the turn, other traffic lights are not visible. Also, since there is a marked crosswalk that runs at an angle from where the sidewalks connect, it is important to ensure that vehicles follow proper traffic control and stop at the stop bar when the light is red."

Black band

"In the last few months I've noticed a black band wrapped around many wooden telephone poles. I don't recall seeing this before. It's not on every pole. This is not something that's just local. I have also seen this in Iowa and Indiana. Any idea what the purpose of these bands might serve?"

We asked Marcelyn Love, a spokeswoman for Ameren Illinois, the local electricity provider.

"Without seeing a picture: If the wrap is located near the ground line it is a preservative treatment that adds a protective element to the wood, with the intent of extending pole life by countering bacteria that could cause decay in the wood pole," she said.

"If it's a hard plastic located approximately 6 feet or so off of the ground, it is intended to prevent squirrels and other small animals from gaining traction to climb the pole."

Weather stations where the buffalo roamed

"It appears there are several weather collecting stations in and around Buffalo Trace Trail at Lake of the Woods County Park on the north side of Mahomet. Is it weather data that is being collected and for what reason?"

Congratulations on your powers of observation at this interesting spot north of I-74 where bison once drank at the Sangamon River and grazed on the tall prairie grass. This spot was part of a well-worn buffalo trail that later was used by a railroad line, then U.S. 150 and eventually I-74.

As for the instruments you spotted, yes, they are in place to measure atmospheric data, such as stability and flow, and were erected by a team from the University of South Carolina Department of Geography along with the Climate and Atmospheric Sciences Section of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, said Michael Daab, the natural resources director at the Champaign County Forest Preserve District.

The instruments are set to be removed from the site by the end of November, he said.

Toys R Us store

"What will be going in old Toys R Us?"

For now, nothing, said Larry Happ, Champaign's building safety supervisor. He said there are no building permit applications for the former toy store at 40 E. Anthony.

Perhaps it will become a new Toys R Us.

On Oct. 2, Geoffrey, LLC, Toys "R" Us, Inc.'s intellectual property holding company subsidiary, announced it is "moving forward with a plan for substantially all of its assets to be acquired by a group of investors led by Geoffrey, LLC's existing secured lenders."

The transition of the business to its new owners is pending approval of the United States Bankruptcy Court.

"Geoffrey, LLC, as reorganized, will control a portfolio of intellectual property that includes trademarks, ecommerce assets and data associated with the Toys 'R' Us and Babies 'R' Us businesses in the United States and all over the world, including a portfolio of over 20 well-known toy and baby brands such as Imaginarium, Koala Baby, Fastlane and Journey Girls," said a statement from the company. "The reorganized company will own rights to the Toys 'R' Us and Babies 'R' Us brands in all markets globally, with the exception of Canada."


Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).