UI's transportation lab in Rantoul could soon get test track, 'smart city'

UI's transportation lab in Rantoul could soon get test track, 'smart city'

RANTOUL — Pavement, heal thyself.

Some day, potholes, the bane of all motorists, might fix themselves — resulting in far fewer vehicle-damage and safety issues. No hypnosis or miracles will be needed. Just technology.

Self-healing roads are just one of the innovative areas where the Illinois Center for Transportation is in the vanguard. And it's all happening in Rantoul.

The center is located at the Advanced Transportation Research and Engineering Laboratory, tucked away in the northeast corner of the former Chanute Air Force Base. Researchers from the University of Illinois and other universities in Illinois and nationwide, as well as the Illinois Department of Transportation, study transportation-related issues there.

And while it is already the place to be for transportation-related research in this area, it might get a lot busier.

The center, which sits on 47 acres of the former base ("Most people don't know we're out here," said Kristi Anderson, financial operations manager) could grow exponentially in size. A proposed project — housing a 1.9-mile test track where vehicles could reach speeds of up to 65 mph — would add 257 acres to the site.

"In the middle of the (site) will be a smart city with different opportunities to test different types of transportation," she said.

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

"This is a huge initiative we are working on," Anderson told the Rantoul Village Board last week. "We are very excited."

One hot-button issue the center expects to be involved with is self-driving (autonomous) vehicles.

"Obviously, autonomous vehicles are coming, but we need to make sure it is safe," Anderson said.

One advantage Rantoul has for such projects is land. There's plenty of it on the former air base.

Mayor Chuck Smith said such a test track would not be possible in Champaign-Urbana because the space isn't available.

Added Village Administrator Rick Snider: "We have the ability to provide land. We have the ability to provide the utilities that are necessary for this. We have already supplied the internet connections to the university research network."

Snider said the potential for the project is huge.

"I think the total investment exceeds $25 million. We are going to have people from all over the world come to Rantoul visiting our hotels, our restaurants and staying here and finding out what a good community this is."

Snider said the village is also using the project as an opportunity to educate university officials for further collaborations. "There are other research units and companies that might be interested in locating here."

The UI's lab spans 67,000 square feet of laboratories with three main buildings. The center's accelerated transportation loading system enables researchers to evaluate different transportation systems "under real environmental and loading systems, whether it be trucks, aircraft or rail systems," Anderson said.

Its mission includes implementation of technologies that improve safety and reliability, reduce congestion and impact on the environment.

IDOT is one of the center's largest sponsors. Since 2005, it has contributed $77.2 million worth of funding for the facility.

The new smart transportation initiative, under the UI College of Engineering, will focus all transportation research under one umbrella, pulling together academia, government and industry, Anderson said. Its mission will be to accelerate development and deployment of automated transportation with a focus on freight and autonomous vehicles. The UI, Northwestern and University of Illinois-Chicago are assisting with the project.

Dave Hinton is editor of the Rantoul Press, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit rantoulpress.com.