Futuristic project gets grant


RANTOUL — The construction of a multi-million-dollar autonomous and connected track in Rantoul took another step toward reality as a result of a grant awarded toward the project.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has awarded $4 million toward the plan to build the track on the former grounds of Chanute Air Force Base.

It was one of 18 projects approved by the university that received grant money totaling $24 million as part of the Investment for Growth initiative designed to expand educational and research excellence.

Village officials have been working with the Illinois Center for Transportation to make the track a reality, but most of the work lately has been by ICT and the university.

“We have let the university and (ICT Director Imad Al-Qadi) take the lead on that,” Rantoul Village Administrator Scott Eisenhauer said. “We stay in close contact with the director, but let him take the lead in working with other entities, including IDOT and other potential partners.”

Eisenhauer said village officials have indicated they will, when asked, provide resources or communication required to support those efforts.

As for Al-Qadi, he’s staying mum until everything is set in stone and ready to roll. A request from the Press, through a spokesperson, asking for a comment from the director on the steps necessary for the project to proceed was rebuffed.

Al-Qadi was quoted earlier, however: “We’re focusing on connected autonomous high-speed mobility — that’s where the future is. We are also focusing on freight transportation, all transportation modes, and 3D mobility. We’ll have a closed testing environment, an open municipal environment, an open high-speed road environment ... and work force training.”

Added Eisenhauer: “I know the design phase is an extensive phase. I would suggest it would probably be at least a year before we would see anything beyond the design phase.”

The project — called the high-speed autonomous and connected freight and multimodal mobility track — will encompass about 430 acres at the far southeast corner of the former Chanute Air Force Base. That’s almost three-quarters of a section of land. A section of land is bounded by one square mile.

Eisenhauer said no negotiations have been concluded regarding land acquisition from the village.

“That will all be (done) after the design is completed, simply because until (then), they won’t know how much land they’ll need,” Eisenhauer said.

He said the village owns “plenty of land” that would be available for the project.

Mayor Chuck Smith said the village would donate 250 acres for the project. The remaining approximately 200 acres would have to be purchased from other property owners.

The property adjacent to the transportation center is currently a combination of farmland, vacant property and the airport to the north. Eisenhauer said the project would not impact the airport.

The facility would feature three lanes with one of those used for freight. Vehicles would be able to travel up to 75 mph.

Smith said he has received a number of inquiries from automotive, software and electronics companies about locating in Rantoul when the project is completed.

“We have had quite a few inquiries as to what could be available” in town, Smith said, adding that close proximity to the project location likely wouldn’t be vital. Company facilities would include a variety of temporary and permanent.

“A lot of it will be coordinated with the University of Illinois,” he said.

Also providing support for the project are the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, Illinois Department of Transportation, Illinois Tollway, the city of Chicago, Champaign County and industries.

The advent of smart technology is the wave of the future. Among its advantages will be greater mobility for individuals who might be restricted by disabilities or age. It could also create job growth.

Smith said officials indicated Rantoul could become one of the first “smart cities.”

Techopedia defines a smart city as “a designation given to a city that incorporates information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance the quality and performance of urban services such as energy, transportation and utilities in order to reduce resource consumption, wastage and overall costs. The overarching aim of a smart city is to enhance the quality of living for its citizens through smart technology.”

Five new master’s of engineering smart mobility courses will be created at the university as a result of the project. However, students of various fields could be recruited to learn the technology.

It is expected that the $65 million project, which is in the planning stage, will be completed three years after design contract approval.