Test track would be major shot in arm for Rantoul economy

This artist's rendering shows the prospective test track that would be built on 257 acres on the former Chanute Air Force Base -- a joint project by three major universities.

RANTOUL — If you build it they will come.

Companies ranging from Amazon to Uber to Verizon to Google, Goodyear and New World Van Lines have expressed interest in possible involvement with a new state-of-the-art test track that could be coming to Rantoul.

The proposed 257-acre Illinois Automated and Connected Track expansion at the Illinois Center for Transportation would be a collaboration with the Smart Transportation Infrastructure Initiative, a partnership between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois-Chicago in the 900 area (southeast side) of the former Chanute Air Force Base.

Companies like those listed above could lease time at the 1.9-mile test track, where vehicles could reach speeds of up to 65 mph.

Mayor Chuck Smith said the addition of the track would have implications far beyond just major construction and an influx of hundreds of students and workers affiliated with the facility. It would likely bring a great deal more business to the community, giving a shot in the arm to housing and the school systems.

In an unrelated economic development, Smith said the village has conducted three interviews with the president of one of China’s largest airlines, which is considering placing a flight school in Rantoul that would train up to 2,000 pilots a year.  

“They also want a longer runway,” Smith said. “We can get a 707 or 727 here. That’s the maximum. They need longer runways (at Rantoul Aviation Center). They’ll train their pilots on smaller aircraft, but they also need the capability of bringing heavier aircraft. They’re waiting to see if we get this extension to our airport.”

The University of Illinois is also in the design phase to develop large cargo drones that would be capable of lifting cargo boxes from the back of a semi trailer and transport them to another location — “taking the load off our interstates,” Smith said.

While the University of Illinois won’t pay tax, the test track will benefit the community in several ways.

“First of all, they’re going to use a lot of utilities,” Smith said. (Rantoul operates its own electric and natural gas systems in addition to water and sewer.) “They’re also going to bring a lot of people. It’s also going to help us with our schools because population will start changing. Also our income level will start changing.

“We’ve had companies ... that are serious about locating here. We’ve had one from Michigan, one from Indiana, another from Austin, Texas, and Santa Cruz, Calif. That’s the type of interest that Rantoul has been able to develop.”

Smith said Village Administrator Scott Eisenhauer is working to find a planning and zoning director for the village and then an economic development director.

He said former Village Administrator Rick Snider has continued to work as a consultant because of his numerous contacts. Snider, whose contract ends at the end of the month, has been involved with the track project.

The testing of self-driving cars is one aspect for which the test track will be used.

Other features will include a signalized intersection, a roundabout, underpass, bridges, railroad crossing, bus lanes/stops and bike/pedestrian safety site.

Smith said the four hangars that are being sold by the village to Los Angles businessman Jack Van Der Velde — a deal that won’t become final until mid-June — “could have been used in a very positive way” if the track becomes reality. “And they still could be; they just won’t be owned by the village, assuming the deal goes through.”

If the track deal becomes reality, nearby Heritage Lake would remain where it is, but Prairie Pines Campground would not and would be relocated.

The attractive aspect about Rantoul development is the availability of land. More than 1,000 acres are available for potential development.

Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce Director Belynda Allen said Rantoul’s name is prominent right now in Springfield and elsewhere.

She said she met recently with Illinois Department of Transportation officials, legislators and engineers.

“They’re all on board and super excited” about the potential track project, Allen said. “I was at a conference with some people in Peoria, and they’re looking to get limited autonomous (programs started), and as soon as they hear the word ‘Rantoul,’ they go, ‘Woah!’ They know what’s going on. People are talking about this in a favorable way.”

Said Smith, “This will change the image of our community.”