CHAMPAIGN — U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis is on board with the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District's plan to expand its Illinois Terminal facility in downtown Champaign, a project that also could lead to a privately developed hotel, conference center and sports arena.
Davis, whose 13th Congressional District includes Champaign-Urbana, reviewed the project worth as much as $150 million Wednesday at the Illinois Terminal with officials from the University of Illinois, city of Champaign and Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District.
He said he would advocate with the federal Department of Transportation for BUILD program funding for the development.
"If that means talking to Secretary (Elaine) Chao, I'll gladly make that call again," he said.
Davis earlier this year voted for an omnibus spending bill that boosts federal funding for transportation projects, like the Illinois Terminal expansion.
"That's one of the reasons I voted for the omnibus bill, because of communities like Champaign that need to partner with the federal government to continue to grow our infrastructure investment," he said.
"And I certainly hope that the (Trump) administration continues to put plans forward that would provide extra dollars in public-private partnership dollars. It's projects like this that have about an 84 percent private investment included in them that I think would shoot to the forefront in this administration who values that leveraged money, that private investment."
The private investment Davis was referencing is developer Hans Grotelueschen's proposal to build a hotel and conference center in downtown Champaign that includes a 5,000- to 6,000-seat arena, apartments and office space. Earlier this year, the UI declared it supports the downtown site for an arena for a proposed Division I hockey program at Illinois.
"Congressman Davis was kind enough to come over here today and learn in more detail about the project we're proposing," Grotelueschen said. "We've had great support from the university and the city and the MTD, and we're here as a private developer to explain what we're trying to accomplish and to look out the windows (on the fourth floor of the Illinois Terminal) and point out at things."
MTD Managing Director Karl Gnadt said that Davis already had been supportive of the downtown project, particularly the Illinois Terminal expansion.
"But we have experienced that when we get people here, and we show them what we're talking about, the excitement level really ramps up. When they can see the condition of the ground that we're going to turn over and make into a real gem for the community, that excites people," Gnadt said.
The project site generally is south of University Avenue to Springfield Avenue and between Neil Street and the Canadian National Railroad tracks.
Earlier this year, the MTD learned it had lost out on a federal TIGER grant that could have provided as much as $25 million for the project. But it wasn't until recently, Gnadt said, that it learned it lost on a technicality.
"We had a debriefing with the federal Department of Transportation where they explained that because we had gotten (another federal) grant for our hydrogen fuel-cell buses, and it was in the same funding year, there's a new rule that you can't receive more than one discretionary grant in the same year of funding," he said. "We were ineligible for these other applications and didn't know it."
More importantly, he said, the federal officials had "highly recommended" the Illinois Terminal expansion plan and urged the MTD to reapply in the next round of grants.
"So it's really good timing to have the representative here today as we're about to submit the applications for this next round," he said. "We feel good. We feel like this is the perfect kind of project for this administration to want to fund because it highlights exactly what the president wants to do. But I don't know what's going on with other projects around the country."
Jane Sullivan, the grants manager at the MTD, said that applications for the BUILD grants are due by mid-July and that an award could be made as early as October.
The MTD is seeking $25 million from one grant program and $15 million from another "and what we're trying to do is create flexibility for the administration to fund the project from one or the other or both of those programs," Gnadt said.