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Quite an assemblage of mailbag questions this week (17!) with everything from rail trail funding to where to run barefoot.

In between: the Dick Van Dyke boyhood home, Dutch elm disease, the Springfield Avenue viaduct, wind turbine escorts on highways, a dry cleaning site, property taxes for schools, how the state and feds decide who will prosecute a case, whether a federal trial might be televised, whether your driver's license can be suspended for non-payment of fines, railroad grade crossings, a new paint store in Savoy and the lyrics to an Illinois fight song.

Also, because Mike in the Morning gets to wish happy birthday to everyone else every day, we thought we'd turn the table and offer a Mailbag Happy Birthday to the always kind and entertaining Mike Haile.

Rail trail funding

"How much money are the taxpayers of Champaign County paying for the 24.5-mile Kickapoo Rail Trail?"

From the acquisition of the abandoned railroad right of way for the trail through what the Champaign County Forest Preserve District projects in cost to the end of Phase 1 of construction, the breakdown for the trail is:

federal granting - 76.9 percent

donations - 19.7 percent

state granting - 3.4 percent

"So to answer the question posed by the reader, no Champaign County property taxes have been used to purchase or build phase one of the Kickapoo Rail Trail," said Dan Olson, executive director of the forest preserve district.

Olson noted that only 12 miles of the proposed 24.5-mile trail is in Champaign County, the rest in Vermilion County.

And the Phase 1 portion between Urbana and St. Joseph is the only segment under construction or design thus far.

Eventually there will be costs to maintain the trail, he said.

"Although we have not had to maintain the trail yet, we know that nationally, and even at our other preserves, trails have the largest return on maintenance investment than any other amenity or service we provide," he said. "The Kickapoo Rail Trail Maintenance Plan cites a 2015 cost for a similar trail in Pennsylvania to have costs of approximately $1,050 per year per mile."

Schools property taxes

"I was curious when got our recent property tax bill as to why Unit 4 (schools) gets almost four times the amount of funding as the city of Champaign as a whole."

First, the school district spends more money.

In its recently adopted budget the Champaign school district proposed spending $140.1 million.

In its most recently adopted budget the city of Champaign (including the Champaign Public Library) proposed spending $125.2 million.

Second, it has many fewer revenue sources than the city.

The city's diverse stream of revenue sources means it gets only about 22 percent from property taxes (37 percent from the sales taxes, 8 percent from the state income tax, 4 percent from the utility tax, and chunks from various other streams including video gaming, sewer fees, a telecommunications tax, fees and fines, a hotel-motel tax, and a food and beverage tax.

The school district's revenue sources are much more limited; property taxes, tuition and fees, state sources and federal sources.

Of your total property tax bill in Champaign, about 52 percent goes to the school district.

In Urbana its about 56 percent.

In Rantoul (two separate school districts) it's about 67 percent.

Kidnapping prosecution

"My question is about the tragic case of the missing Chinese scholar. I understand that it could have been prosecuted by the state or the feds and that the latter has the ability to deliver harshest penalties. I'm curious: Does Julia Rietz have any real say in such scenarios? If so, how did the 'behind scenes' conversations go this time between she and the U.S. attorney?"

"Without speaking specifically about the Christensen case as it is pending, the relationship between my office and the U.S. Attorney's office is not at all like you see in the movies where the feds show up and take over and the locals are pushed aside," said Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz. "We have a very cordial, cooperative working relationship with our federal colleagues.

"Sometimes the federal prosecutors have access to resources and the ability to present evidence under federal rules that we do not have. Other times, because the federal sentencing guidelines are largely based on prior criminal history, we have a stronger sentencing range available. In some cases we assist with initial case workups because we can do some things faster than they can. But for as long as I have been state's attorney we have always worked cooperatively and without ego getting in the way with the U.S. Attorney's office to get the best results we can achieve for the case."

Cameras in federal courts

"I read in The News-Gazette that the trial of the Yingying Zhang kidnapper may take a year. Will this be televised? Do they televise court here?"

As of now rules for the U.S. District Court in Central Illinois prohibit electronic devices in courtrooms, including "cameras, video recorders, audio recorders, cellular or digital phones, palm pilots and pda's, computers, and all similar electronic, cable, digital, computerized or other forms and methods of recording, transmitting or communicating."

Dutch elm Disease

"I live on a lot that has some huge trees — three bald cypress, three tulip, a chestnut. Two other trees that I didn't recognize, that had a curiously pretty green bloom in the spring, have turned out to be elms. I thought that Dutch elm disease had destroyed all the elms in the '50s and '60s. How many elms survived in Champaign County? How many elms did not?"

The disease, which did particular damage to Champaign-Urbana's urban landscape, wiped out more than 15,000 elm trees in the community from about 1951 to 1972. An estimated 90 percent of the trees in Champaign-Urbana at that time were elms.

Among its victims were the beautiful, arching trees that graced the "Broadwalk" on the University of Illinois Quad.

We don't have numbers for the entire county, but Urbana City Arborist Mike Brunk said the city now has 255 elms.

"One of these elms is believed to be a surviving American elm of the 1950-60s Dutch elm epidemic," he said. "It is along the South Race Street bike path just south of Mumford and has more of an oak-like habit compared to the more common arching American elm-type habit of yesteryear. Unfortunately we just discovered and removed a diseased elm in the near vicinity of this tree. This elm is in need of pruning, especially street clearance, but we are holding off until winter to minimize the likelihood of attracting feeding elm bark beetles to fresh wounds and infecting this tree."

About 49 of the elms are Siberian elms that are a poorer quality elm planted in the 60s and 70s, Brunk said.

The remaining 205 are elm hybrids (50 percent named varieties) that Urbana has been planting since the 1980s, he said.

"Some of these hybrid elms are American elms that are being bred to be resistant to the Dutch elm disease. Disease-resistance breeding in trees takes decades so only time will tell how successful these new hybrids will be," Brunk said.

Here's his overview of the tree disease:

"Dutch elm disease wiped out America's monoculture planting of American elms. In fact some call it the most destructive shade tree disease in the United States, well, that was before our present day Emerald Ash Borer infestation. The disease spread quickly and easily, due to the highly popular monoculture planting of the American elms throughout most American communities," he said. "Dutch elm disease spread from tree to tree through their grafted roots and feeding elm bark beetles.

"The American elm made the perfect street tree due to a common arching habit which needed little to no pruning to retain street clearance and they created a beautiful street tree effect. So yes another lesson that too much of a good thing is not always good. Lesson learned, well, still being learned: Diversify, Diversify, Diversify!"

Dick Van Dyke home

"Whatever happened to renovating Dick Van Dyke's boyhood home in Danville, IL? I met the contractor when Dick appeared at Danville High School. The contractor said that renovation would be started in April of this year. I drove past the home and nothing appears to be happening at the site."

Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer helped us out with this question.

"The contractor who is slated to do the renovation work, Dan Riedemann, is also the contractor involved in the restoration of the Walt Disney Birthplace in Chicago. While it was projected work would begin on the Dick Van Dyke home this April, additional funding was raised for the Walt Disney Birthplace project allowing them to restore much of the interior, in addition to the exterior work which was completed last year," said Eisenhauer. "Recognizing the reasonableness of finishing one project before beginning another, intentions are to finish as much of the renovation on the Walt Disney Birthplace as funds will allow, before beginning the work on the Dick Van Dyke house.

"While they hope to still do some exterior work on the Dick Van Dyke house this construction season, that will be dependent upon the timing related to the completion of the work in Chicago."

Windmill blade escorts

"I had questions about the movement of windmill blades that have been towed through the area recently. Where are the blades going? Do the hauling companies have to pay the Illinois State Police for the escort? Lastly, while I have been behind the police escorted blades traveling east, at the same time we've seen escorted blades traveling west. Who determines if the blades must be escorted by the police?

The wind turbine blades are bound for a number of states with wind farms, including Illinois.

The blades do not require law enforcement escorts if they are traveling only on interstates, said Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Williamsen. They do require escorts for two-lane roads.

Right now the Illinois State Police (ISP) charges $60 per hour per ISP squad car needed, with a minimum charge of $300 per ISP car.

Following is a projected listing of the number of escorts potentially requiring an ISP escort for the windmill industry, said ISP spokesman Matt Boerwinkle:

2017 — 740 to 790 blades.

2018 — (projected) 2,100 blades.

2019 - (projected) 2,100 blades.

"Due to the increasing number of these escort requests, the ISP in conjunction with the IDOT, examined how the ISP could reduce the amount of time required by officers to escort these components," said Boerwinkle. "It was determined on the interstate system it would be safe to allow the trucking companies to provide one additional civilian escort vehicle and remove the ISP escort," he said. "However, on non-interstate roadways, the ISP will continue to escort the windmill components."

Springfield Avenue viaduct

"Saw yet another truck stuck under the Springfield Ave. railroad viaduct last week. Why hasn't something been done to prevent those? Thinking off the top of my head a tube hanging above the road similar to those in a parking garage entrance would be a low tech warning. A laser mounted at the correct height that would trigger a red flashing warning light mounted on the bridge would be a higher tech warning. It amazes me that in a town that boasts one of the best engineering schools in the nation that this issue has not been solved yet."


"It seems every week a truck gets stuck under the viaduct at Springfield Avenue and the Illinois Central Railroad tracks. Following these accidents, who inspects the viaduct for damage? In the last accident that I saw, the truck made it farther than most under the bridge. Also, has IDOT and/or the city of Champaign considered changing the highway route, perhaps to University Ave. or Kirby, so as to utilize a full height viaduct?"


"This morning there's a truck stuck under the railroad tracks at Springfield and Neil. I'd say I've seen this happen 50 times over the years. Can't this be fixed, road lowered, etc.?"

We got this response from Kensil Garnett, the Region 3 engineer for IDOT: "The route is signed correctly to prevent vehicles from getting stuck but drivers fail to pay attention to the signage," he said. "The route is under IDOT jurisdiction but the structure belongs to the (Canadian National/Illinois Central) Railroad. The railroad performs the inspections on the structure after it has been hit."

Changing the highway route would involve a jurisdictional transfer that would need to be proposed by the city of Champaign, he said.

"IDOT is doing some research on possible low cost improvements such as the ones your reader mentioned to possibly alleviate the structure being hit," Garnett said.

Suspended license

"If a person owes criminal justice fines and fees, is their driver's license automatically suspended or revoked until they pay?"A Failure to Pay Fines stop is the result of a request by an Illinois circuit clerk's office for non-payment of court-imposed fines, said Champaign County Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman.

"A Failure to Pay Fines stop is not a suspension of your driver's license and/or driving privileges and does not require a reinstatement fee. However, an offender will not be able to renew or be issued a driver's license until the Secretary of State's office receives a Failure to Pay Fines Receipt, or Compliance paperwork, as we call it in Champaign County," she said. "The Failure to Pay Fines stop is typically filed in traffic cases, but can also be ordered by a judge in criminal cases. No notices are sent to the Secretary of State without judicial order.

"So in short, no driver's license is automatically suspended or revoked when fines and fees are assessed, but a stop can be placed on your license if you do not pay court ordered fines and fees by the court ordered due date."

Railroad grade crossings

"Why can't all railroad crossings be as nice and smooth like the one on South McKinley between Vine and Maple. Just east of this crossing is the Prospect Avenue crossing, very rough, yet same rail line. Drive across the tracks on Bradley faster than 3 to 4 mph and your car will take a beating. What's up with this?"

Marianne Manko at the Illinois Commerce Commission suggests notifying the railroad operator. Next, contact the ICC.

"When a member of the general public has a railroad crossing complaint, they should first contact the railroad that owns the track. A blue Emergency Notification Sign (ENS) is installed at every highway-rail grade crossing. That sign includes a phone number that a person can call to report a problem and a unique code identifying that crossing," she wrote.

If you can't reach the railroad, or you are dissatisfied with the response, complete an online complaint with the ICC at

Barefoot running

"I have gone barefoot, both indoors and out, for most of my life (decades). I want to start jogging again. Where in C-U can I safely and comfortably run barefoot? Mainly need a large public grassy area with minimal canine poop."

We got several suggestions from runners with the local Second Wind Running Club, including the cross-country track near Lincoln Avenue in Urbana, just south of Florida (behind the University of Illinois President's House), the Lake of Woods Park Buffalo Trace Trail and many city parks.

"Safety and comfort depend on your barefoot experience. If you've been barefoot all your life, then you can probably run pretty comfortably just about anywhere," said runner Jen Burton. "Because consistent flat surfaces increase your risk of repetitive stress/overuse injury and can cause your feet to tire more quickly, I imagine you'll want to stay away from places like Meadowbrook and the cross country course once you're running more than a couple miles at a time.

"The Buffalo Trace Trail in Mahomet is a nice beginner course, although it has become rutted with increased gator traffic in the last several years. The trails around Homer Lake are pretty good, with very little synthetic garbage to cut your feet (and not too much dog poop). If your feet can handle moderate sharp stones and twigs, Lake Mingo (in Kennekuk County Park in Vermilion County) is also pretty good but has a higher prevalence of locust thorns — few feet in North America are calloused enough to prevent those things from penetrating, and they really hurt!"

New paint store for Savoy

"There seems to be some work being done on the lot behind CVS on Curtis Road in Savoy. At one time McDonald's was interested in putting one of their restaurants there. Any idea what, if anything, is coming there?"

No McDonald's yet, said Dan Davies, Savoy's zoning administrator and building official. The building under construction will be a Sherwin-Williams paint store, he said.

Illini fight song

"What does 'Oskee Wow-Wow' mean? Also, how did the term originate?"

I'm not certain but I think it means nothing. It was written more than 100 years ago by H.R. Green and H.V. Hill, according to Green, a member of the UI Class of 1912, as part of an Illinois opera. The job was never finished, he wrote 25 years later, but "Oskee Wow Wow," Hail to the Orange" and "Cheer Illini" were among the pieces salvaged and turned into tunes.

It is similar to the University of Minnesota Rouser, written in 1909:

"Minnesota, Hats Off to Thee

"To Our Colors True We Shall Ever Be

"Firm and Strong, United Are We

"Rah Rah Rah for Ski-U-Mah

"Rah Rah Rah Rah

"Rah for the U of M"

Other nonsense cheers from that era:

Louisiana State University: "Hobble, Gobble, Razzle, Dazzle, Sis, Boom, Bah. Louisian, Louisian, Rah Rah, Rah!"

Johns Hopkins University: " Hullabaloo, Kanuck, Kanuck, Hullabaloo, Kanuck, Kanuck! Hoorah! Hurrah, JHU!"

Princeton University: "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Tiger! Sis! Boom! Ah! Princeton!"

Wright Street property

"Are there any plans to develop the spot on Wright Street over the Boneyard Creek where an old laundry used to exist? It went from one eyesore to another."

The property was purchased from the owner of the former Garber's Cleaners by a local developer, said Champaign Planning & Development Director Bruce Knight, "and there have been various discussions about how to handle the Boneyard Creek running under the property and how to provide for a continuation of the trail.

"We have not received an application for a building permit as of yet and I don't know what their status is on proceeding with development," he said.

Tuscola Warriors

"Has there ever been a push from anyone in Tuscola to change the team nickname from the Warriors?"

Tuscola Athletic Director Ryan Hornaday writes: "Never been brought up as far as I know. Can't imagine that ever happening."

Campus calzones

"What's the name of the campus restaurant in the 1980s that had calzones and where was it located? I think at one point it was on John Street where White Horse was later located."


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