Peotone airport gains in new state budget, but history shows taxpayers lose

Peotone airport gains in new state budget, but history shows taxpayers lose

Funding for a third Chicagoland airport was included in the latest state budget. The controversial plan brings a risk for more corruption and overspending that will cost taxpayers millions.

South suburban Peotone, an agricultural town of about 4,000 off Interstate 57 in rural Will County, seems an unlikely place to build a full-sized airport. The town has been the proposed location of a third major airport for the Chicago region since the 1980’s. According to Illinois’ latest budget, the plan now has traction.

South Suburban Airport, or SSA, was allotted $1 million in the fiscal year 2020 state budget. The money is for environmental studies and completing the master plan. An additional $162 million was apportioned in the capital plan for roadwork to connect the proposed site with I-57.

The latest discussions describe SSA as a cargo airport with a focus on e-commerce shipping. Supporters say the growing number of distribution centers in Will County, including one up the road in Monee owned by Amazon, justifies the need for another airport.

The Illinois Department of Transportation started buying farmland in 2002 and now has 5,000 of the desired 6,000 acres of land at a cost of $97.3 million. People involved in the project said the goal is to have flights in five years.

Lawmakers say a new airport would breathe life into the south suburban economy. U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson, submitted a letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker with signatures from numerous local politicians. While Pritzker has not taken a position on the issue, other leaders including former Gov. Bruce Rauner and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel have opposed the plan.

Where’s the demand?

Many in the aviation industry have cautioned against the project.

Amazon declined to commit to any potential cargo hub at SSA, and recently chose to build an airfreight hub in Fort Worth. The United Parcel Service, or UPS, flies 30 flights a night into Rockford and is expanding their center in Louisville. FedEx has major hubs in Indianapolis and Memphis. O’Hare also accepted 2 million tons of cargo in 2018. Gary recently increased cargo capacity. These take away demand for a new hub near Chicago.

Chicago Rockford International Airport also has expanded cargo capabilities and plans to expand service for UPS and Amazon, which would likely take away flights from a potential Peotone airport.

O’Hare is finishing the O’Hare Modernization Program, which will add 800,000 square feet of cargo space by 2021 and is realigning the runways. Work is also beginning on ORD 21, which will increase O’Hare’s passenger capacity. American and Southwest airlines say they are committed to their current hubs at O’Hare and Chicago Midway International Airport. Emanuel said O’Hare’s upcoming terminal expansion would add the capacity of a third airport, eliminating a need for passenger service at Peotone.

Gary/Chicago International Airport also recently enhanced its cargo capabilities. The airport bills itself as an alternative to the congestion of O’Hare and Midway, just as Peotone does.

Cautionary tale

A new airport to relieve congestion is not a new idea in Illinois. MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Belleville was created as a $300-million alternative to St. Louis Lambert International Airport. The airport opened in 1997 adjacent to Scott Air Force Base and has since sucked away money from St. Clair County taxpayers.

St. Clair County has pumped $104.3 million from taxpayers into the airport since 2002. Officials claim more passengers will help pay off debt. This has been false as more passengers have flown through MidAmerica every year since 2011, but the airport continues to tally losses.

Allegiant Airlines currently offers a few flights a week from the airport.

St. Clair County taxpayers will be paying off airport debt until 2045 – a nearly 50-year commitment of public resources. Will County residents might also have an empty airport and millions of dollars in debt to look forward to from SSA.

Ripe for corruption

Although south suburban politicians view SSA as an alternative to O’Hare, they may share the same costly political games and corruption scandals.

O’Hare has been filled with corruption and political favors since opening in 1955. From bold plans of which airlines widely disapprove, contracts for friends, and even an assassination, the history of airport construction and management has been devastating for taxpayers.

O’Hare has the largest debt and lowest on-time average of the five major airports. The ORD 21 plan will cost $8.5 billion, if it’s completed on budget and on time by 2028. That rarely happens, as the latest fiasco with the people mover has shown. How can taxpayers expect SSA to go in a different direction?

Many of O’Hare’s construction projects are given to people with connections to City Hall. ORD 21 architect Jeanne Gang has connections with lobbyist Gery Chico, an ally of Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward. Burke oversaw the issuance of $2 billion in new bonds for the project. Burke has also helped his clients at Midway. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in August that Burke was able to get $1.9 million from property tax refunds and interest for rental car companies Avis and Budget. His client Walsh Construction also received $53.3 million in 2011 to build a new parking garage.

Michael Kasper, the airport’s highest paid lobbyist, is House Speaker Michael Madigan’s lawyer and the Democratic Party of Illinois’ treasurer. He and his associates reported $8.1 million in lobbying fees related to the airport. Victor Reyes, a member of former mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, has made $1.6 million lobbying to get his clients involved with airport projects.

Taxpayers and passengers pick up the tab for the favors and over-priced projects.

Lessons for Peotone

Former Chicago Ald. Ricardo Muñoz told the Better Government Association that he was once told to pick 10 friends and “make them millionaires.” This is how business has been done at Illinois airports. Will a new Peotone airport be different or just create a new set of millionaires?

The large number of politicians lobbying for funding to create SSA raises a red flag. O’Hare and MidAmerica’s history shows taxpayers are harmed by grand airport projects built for the wrong reasons.

Based on feedback from freight companies and airlines, there is little demand for flights into SSA. The airlines are focused on their hubs at O’Hare and Midway. Cargo companies already have established themselves throughout the region. Building an airport without a clear need could make Will County taxpayers foot a bill for an underused stretch of concrete just as St. Clair County residents have done.

Illinois’ state and federal lawmakers would be better off pulling the plug on Peotone. Taxpayers should not be forced to pay dearly to advance a third Chicagoland airport for which there is little demonstrated demand.

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