Urbana’s Cunningham Avenue receives innovative, cost-effective upgrades

By Crystal Kang

The Urbana City Council approved Monday night the final revisions to the Cunningham Avenue Beautification Project report presented by Urbana redevelopment specialist Ryan Brault. The goal of the project is to redevelop the Cunningham Avenue corridor, a vital highway entrance into Urbana, to attract visitors and businesses into its neighborhood.

A major discussion topic remains up in the air on whether Urbana should install the modern roundabout system on the intersection of Country Club Road/Perkins Road and Cunningham Ave. Brault said the Illinois Department of Transportation rejected the idea because there are no modern roundabouts in east central Illinois. Urbana drivers may be unfamiliar with the usage of roundabouts, which foresees more disasters. But if used correctly, there will be a 90 percent reduction in fatalities.

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University Professor Emeritus Gary Cziko gave a presentation that highlighted the major benefits of the roundabouts and their usages in European countries and even some states in the U.S.

He said roundabouts can handle larger volumes of traffic than traditional stop sign or signal-controlled intersections. The Washington State Department of Transportation reported that, since no signals are required to operate a roundabout, $5,000 in electricity will be saved per year in maintenance cost. He added that the raised center island provides an area for vegetation and art to flourish, giving the roundabout a true natural and attractive appearance.

“As an attractive, economic and sustainable addition to the corridor, I think you can educate people about (roundabouts),” Cziko said.

IDOT wrote to Public Works Director Bill Gray in a memo and mentioned that a two-lane roundabout on a road that averages more than 22,000 vehicles should not be the public’s first experience with a modern roundabout. One of the priorities in the Cunningham Avenue Beautification project is to emphasize safety for cyclists and pedestrians. By implementing a modern roundabout, IDOT wrote that pedestrians may struggle to identify when to cross the street as they approach a roundabout.

Ward 4 Alderman Brandon Bowersox disagreed with IDOT’s conservative method of thinking.

“Roundabouts have been proven to be safer,” Bowersox said. “It at least deserves a fair consideration.”

Adding attention-grabbing aesthetics on the highway was another concern for the district. In a memo to Gray, IDOT wrote that every effort should be made to avoid distracting interstate traffic and that IDOT cannot support the placement of large sculptures that will distract high-speed travelers on I-74.

“I’m very disappointed with IDOT’s reactions,” said Ward 1 Alderman Charlie Smyth. “We have very good consultants. There are lots of communities who’ve done art on the corridors. We need to be in a position to go further with the project.”

Ward 5 Alderman Dennis Roberts said improving the appearance of the corridor will make it more appealing, especially with the emergence of new businesses.

“All we’re doing is changing the aesthetics,” said Ward 3 Alderman Robert Lewis. “We’re just behind the times. We need to push the conservative engineers.”

The Cunningham Avenue Beautification Project is ready to be evaluated in its engineering phase. The money generated from the Tax Increment Financing, 4 Plan and possible federal grants are the main sources of funding for the project, estimated to cost between $6.5 and $8 million, Brault said.

“(The project) will be likely done in phases where there will be large investments along the corridor,” Brault said. “There’s also a chance for federal grants to implement these changes since it’s a U.S. route.”

Brault added that people who want to start businesses to help generate TIF money will have priority over other locations to start the redevelopment in their area.

Despite the economic recession, Ward 7 Alderwoman Lynne Barnes is optimistic about the future path that this project will take Urbana.

“(This project) gives us a vision as to what to work for,” Barnes said. “We need hope for the future. It doesn’t mean we’ll stop having ideas and vision because we’re in a now identified (economic) recession.”