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Despite obstacles, airport timetable is optimistic

Updated: August 27, 2013 6:26AM



With several hurdles still facing the proposed South Suburban Airport, the state’s top transportation official said Thursday she felt confident ground could be broken in about two years, with “planes in the air by 2020.”

Speaking after Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation giving her agency the power to court developers and investors interested in working in tandem with the state to build an airport near Peotone, Ann Schneider, secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, said the state hopes to have final approval from the federal government sometime in 2015, and initial construction could begin before the end of that year.

“I think it’s a very realistic timetable,” she told reporters after Quinn and several legislators spoke at Governors State University about the decadeslong effort to bring the airport to fruition.

Quinn said state officials would push to “build it as quickly as possible,” but noted that “it’s very important to do it right.”

The Federal Aviation Administration needs to sign off on the proposed master plan for the airport, and also weigh in on the project’s environmental impact, with a decision on that likely coming in 2015, Schneider said. Construction could take three to four years, she said.

The state wouldn’t begin soliciting proposals from investors and developers until around the time final approval from the FAA is expected, Schneider said.

Although the FAA’s consent is anything but guaranteed, she said the agency has responded favorably to the initial components of the airport’s master plan.

“There is no reason to believe it’s going to be that way,” with the FAA ultimately rejecting plans for the airport, Schneider said.

Quinn acknowledged legislators and others who backed the airport project, saying they “put their heart and soul” into the effort.

“This is not an easy thing to do,” the governor said. “It was a movement of folks in the south suburbs.”

Will County Executive Larry Walsh said that for “decades we have talked and discussed and debated the issue of building a south suburban airport,” but that it would ultimately be in the FAA’s lap, with a “decision once and for all” being made.

Establishing the framework to develop the airport through a public-private partnership represents “taking a giant step (into) the future,” Walsh said.

Officials hoped that, eventually, the Southland might enjoy the same type of office buildings and other commercial development that has sprouted in the vicinity of O’Hare Airport.

Paul Braun, Flossmoor’s mayor and president of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, described the airport as a “game-changing economic development project” for the region.

Legislators and other backers of the airport “worked hard and stuck to it,” and the development represents an opportunity to “build this region and make it what it should be,” state Rep. Al Riley (D-Olympia Fields) said.

Ed Paesel, the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association’s executive director, said after the bill-signing ceremony that he was mayor in Sauk Village when the first comprehensive study of the airport got under way in 1984. With little progress made, “some people pronounced the airport dead,” he said.

“This is by far the most major step we’ve ever taken, and are very close” to seeing the project realized, Paesel said.

So far, IDOT has spent $40 million for 5,800 acres for what has been termed a “starter” or “inaugural” airport — about half of what is needed, Schneider said. The bill Quinn signed earmarks an additional $70 million for land acquisition.

Schneider said the “inaugural” airport would create 11,000 construction jobs, and that in its first year of operation would employ between 2,500 and 3,000 people.

Getting private firms on board to develop the airport will enable the state to “leverage private sector investment,” and, as a result, “minimizing public input from the taxpayers,” she told reporters after her public remarks.

Still unclear is how much the airport would cost — Schneider said it was too early to make an estimate — and how much the state and investment partner/developer would contribute.

Not everyone was gushing about the attributes of the airport.

Lois Arms, with the opposition group Shut This Airport Nightmare Down, or STAND, said she still doubts airlines are interested in operating at the facility.

“It’s a zombie that’s still walking around,” the Park Forest resident said prior to the bill signing. “After 30 years, it’s not going to happen.”

State officials see a passenger airline operating at the airport, but believe it will attract carriers focused on air cargo.

“Demand for air service is going to continue to grow in this region,” Schneider told reporters after her public remarks, and noted that air cargo shipments in Illinois are anticipated to double by 2040.

“We want to build capacity to meet that demand,” she said.

While truck and train are the primary modes of shipping goods at area intermodal terminals, that’s mainly limited to the transport of lower-cost commodities and heavy freight, Schneider said. Manufacturers of “high-value, low-volume (weight)” products prefer to ship by air, she said.

Along with furthering the airport, the bill Quinn signed will also help foster development around railroad intermodal terminals, including two now operating in the Southland as well as one planned in Crete.

The creation of jobs in manufacturing, transportation and logistics in communities surrounding the Canadian National intermodal yard in Harvey and the Union Pacific terminal in Dolton will help fund a pool of money that would be available for use as incentives to attract development around the terminals, Paesel said. Employee income taxes from those new jobs would, instead of going to the state, be diverted to this fund, which would be overseen by a nine-member board, he said. The 12 suburbs adjacent to the Southland terminals would appoint five of the members, Paesel said.



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