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Q&A: Peoria Mayor Ali updates passenger rail plans, expresses optimism as new year draws near

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali

As 2022 enters its final weeks, Peoria Mayor Rita Ali has high hopes for the city in the new year.

Ali says she believes ongoing road improvements, efforts to cut down on violent crime, and investments in neighborhoods will make Peoria a safer and stronger community.

The mayor also remains steadfast in her push to bring passenger rail service back to Peoria.

In her latest monthly conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Ali discusses a range of issues and details a grant application recently submitted to advance the passenger rail project.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Let's start off with an update on the passenger rail effort. What are the latest developments? I believe there was a grant application deadline on Dec. 1, is that correct?

Mayor Rita Ali: Sure. We submitted a grant application for systems design, and that was a $2 million request from the federal government with a $500,000 match between IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation) and the City of Peoria. So, $2.5 million is what we're looking at for a consolidated rail safety (Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements) grant application – it’s called a “CRISI” grant, and that was submitted on Dec. 1 in partnership with our partners along the corridor: the northern communities of LaSalle-Peru and Morris, Illinois, Ottawa, on through Joliet in Chicago.

So what is the timeline on that grant proposal?

Ali: We actually expect to hear back sometime in late spring.

So what are the next steps beyond that?

Ali: The next big step? We just met with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA); they actually reached out to us and set up a meeting. So part of our leadership team met with the FRA about its Corridor Identification Program. This is key; it's very important that we be selected into the FRA’s Corridor Identification Program so that we can get the financial assistance that we need, the technical assistance that we need, and getting into their pool of rail lines that are selected for funding and support.

So it's very important that we get selected. They will issue their RFP (request for proposal) around mid-December. They'll give about 90 days to apply, in terms of a deadline turnaround. We've already started. We've already started on developing those 14 components, elements that are required to be a part of that program. And we believe that we have a strong case for getting in.

So obviously this project is several years in the making, it's going to be rather expensive with governmental funding. What do you see as the economic benefit for Peoria in having this rail line?

Ali: So we've actually already started on the benefit/cost analysis that was required as part of that Dec. 1 grant that we submitted it, but we're actually expanding on that to show economic development. We have a study that's part of our application, part of the funding that we've put forth. So actually, we'll know more in another couple of months when that economic development study is complete.

But just like Normal, Illinois, we expect it to be a game-changer in terms of economic development, not just allowing people to leave our city to go to Chicago and other places (like) Starved Rock, but to bring people to Peoria. People want to come for health care and other reasons, and they want to come to Peoria. That helps our economy.

Earlier this month, the city and the police department held a news conference on the officer involved shooting of Samuel “Vincent” Richmond, and released some of the body cam video and audio recordings. The Illinois State Police (ISP) investigation into that incident is still ongoing. But do you believe, as a matter of transparency, there should be an official city or police department policy where materials like these are released within 60 days?

Ali: We decided 60 days in this case because we understood in communications with ISP – Illinois State Police – that it would not negatively impact the investigation. The state police (already) had shared some of the video material with family members and extended family members. There was communication to us later on that sharing the video would not negatively impact the investigation. That may not be the case in every scenario, so we do not at this time want a standard policy to say in every instance 60 days is the timeframe that we’ll release material. So it will be on a case-by-case scenario.

I believe in Chicago they do have some sort of formal 60-day policy but then there can be appeals or exemptions in specific cases. Could it be a situation where you did have a formal 60-day policy, and case by case then maybe alter it?

Ali: To make exceptions? I think that's something that we could certainly look at. I was not aware of Chicago's policy about a standard 60 days. But I think that there's something that we can certainly look at

How much involvement do you think the Police-Community Relations Advisory Committee should have in officer involved shootings?

Ali: Actually, they have not had much involvement in this case. There is a monthly meeting with that group; there was probably some input or discussion that was held, but not too much information shared by police because it's not our investigation.

That's a group that I've been involved in previously, prior to this role that I currently have, for many, many years in terms of an advisory committee on police community relations. It's an important commission to our city, that citizens are involved in working with police. We have several groups: we also have the Safety Network that meets monthly and works very closely with the police as well. So I would say, it's an input group, it's a discussion group and in that sense, I think that they have a right to have some weigh-in.

It is an input group, an advisory committee, as you said. But do you think maybe this group should have some more teeth to it, some more enforcement capability to make recommendations for the police?

Ali: I would say not specifically to officer involved shootings, per se. But in regard to police incidents, complaints about the police. We've always wanted this group to have more teeth. There's been some resistance to turning it into a citizens review board, because there's costs associated with that. There's some cities like Springfield, I also believe that – I won't say the name because I'm not sure, but there's another city in central Illinois – that has citizen review boards. Well, they have hearings (and) they have paid staff. We have not come to the point to have a budget for our police-community advisory commission or committee. So we haven't gotten that far. It's something that they have explored, and it still has not made it to the level of a review board.

Switching gears to regulation of cannabis dispensaries, I believe the Planning and Zoning Commission has given a green light for a couple more locations that will be coming before the council in the next couple of months. Do you anticipate more dispensaries coming over the next several years?

Ali: There's some sentiment by some of the council that are hesitant to expand many more; some council members don't want any more. I think we have to follow our ordinance and decisions that we've got in place. I think we're open to, I think, a capacity right now up to six (and) we're not there yet. So unless there's a good reason for not doing so, if an applicant follows all the rules and procedures and there's not a lot of reasonable resistance or complaints by neighbors or citizens, residents, I think that we have to consider those (dispensaries).

We also had a survey, we had public input and the public actually told us: about 60% said they didn't want a lot of restrictions associated with these. There's not been criminal activity associated with these highly regulated businesses. They've been a great source of revenue. Residents have not been objecting very much to these types of businesses in our community.

You mentioned the survey, and that leads into my next question. The survey also indicated strong support for on-site consumption, but the discussion around the horseshoe (city council) seemed to show a majority of the council members were opposed to this idea, including you. Why are you against on-site consumption?

Ali: It's something that I think we don't know how that will play out in Peoria. We know we have on-site consumption of alcohol (and) oftentimes it may result in impaired driving (or) other instances that are negative, and we don't know how that might play out with cannabis consumption on-site. So like several of my colleagues, I'm hesitant to go that route. I think that we're doing well right now with the businesses that we have in place. We haven't had any problems; they're highly regulated. I'm afraid to take that next step to on-site consumption right now at this time.

So even though the public seems to strongly support it, though, why do you think that you're different from what it seems most of the people would want?

Ali: I think because we're siding on the side of safety. As elected representatives we're more conservative, I would think, than many of the public in terms of onsite consumption. It's something that we have not done before, and we're hesitant to take that step for our community.

How satisfied are you with the 2023 budget revisions that the city council approved?

Ali: I'm very pleased that we approved that budget. It provides many new opportunities in terms of services, in terms of capital improvements for our city, in terms of equity investments in older parts of our city. I'm just very happy with the new revenues that are coming in. I think what we've put in place will help us to weather inflation and weather some of the storms that we have ahead.

The Planning and Zoning Commission has delayed a vote on a proposed senior housing complex on the city's South Side. The project is one of two preliminary proposals for affordable housing projects in the area. What does the city need to do to increase the amount of affordable housing that's available?

Ali: We have to approve projects just like that. There were two proposals, one for multifamily (and) one for senior housing – we need both. I think that group (the planning and zoning commission) probably needed a little bit more data in terms of the vacancy rates and our occupancy rates for current senior housing on the South Side of Peoria, the demand for senior housing within the city of Peoria.

But we have to populate the South Side of Peoria. That's the only way the South Side will bring more businesses back, will bring grocery stores back. We have to have population, and in order to have population, we have to have quality, affordable housing. So I'm happy that we have a developer that's interested in developing housing for Peoria’s South Side. We need more of those types of developers, and I expect and hope that that project will be approved.

So what can the city do then to attract more developers to add more housing in the South Side?

Ali: Well, just what we're doing now. We have a Land Bank that's purchasing up property, that's preparing property for development, that we’ll be putting out some requests for interest for developers to come forth to develop around the MacArthur corridor area, around the Western Avenue corridor area. Actually having some ready land – some of it's owned by the City of Peoria – that we're willing to practically give away for development, for housing, and that's what we need. We need housing, housing, after housing – quality housing. It will draw people which will draw businesses.

With the holidays and the end of the year approaching, what are your hopes and goals and plans for Peoria in 2023?

Ali: I'm very excited about next year. Again, we have some things in place. We have a number of huge federal grants out there that we're waiting to hear back about (and) we're very optimistic about. But again, our roads – there's a lot of road work that has taken place this year and that will go into next year. So I think that we'll have a lot more satisfaction in terms of roads. Over the years, we've had a lot of complaints, but there's been a lot of improvements and a lot more coming.

I think the investments that we're making into neighborhoods will be very well received and people will be much happier. We're working on reducing gun violence, reducing homicides in our community, so I believe – I expect that we will have a safer community in 2023. And downtown development: we have a focus on making downtown a real centerpiece for our community and bringing people back. I'm just very optimistic about next year for Peoria.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.