Kadner: Hope and doubt about airport’s fate
BY PHIL KADNER firstname.lastname@example.org July 25, 2013 6:14PM
Illinois State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, left, celebrates as Gov. Pat Quinn signs a wide-ranging bill that will allow state officials to push forward on a third Chicago area airport Thursday, July 25, 2013, in University Park, Ill. Efforts on the project have been stalled for decades because of disagreements about local control. The bill signed Thursday authorized the Illinois Department of Transportation to spend about $70 million to continue land acquisition. The airport is proposed to be built on unincorporated land near Peotone, Ill. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Updated: August 27, 2013 6:29AM
It was Crete Mayor Michael Einhorn who brought a dose of reality to Gov. Pat Quinn’s South Suburban Airport bill-signing ceremony Thursday.
“It’s a fact-based process now,” said Einhorn, whose community is located near the proposed airport land.
“I mean that private developers will now examine this idea, look at all the facts and determine if it’s worth investing their money,” Einhorn said.
“It’s not some politician’s dream. Can this airport plan make money? That’s what we’re going to find out.”
Einhorn has never been a booster of airport development.
But his assessment is right on the money, although even he admitted politics will continue to play a huge role in the airport’s development.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who got a new sports center on Navy Pier as part of the same legislation giving governing authority over the airport to the Illinois Department of Transportation, hasn’t said much about the South Suburban Airport in recent months.
“The last thing he did say,” Einhorn pointed out, “was that he wasn’t in favor of it.”
With a few phone calls threatening to withhold Chicago business from any developer who gets involved in the South Suburban Airport, Emanuel could very quietly kill the project.
I was surprised to hear Einhorn express a conspiracy theory similar to one espoused by former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who had first conceived of a private-public partnership to build the airport.
Jackson and Einhorn were far from being friends.
But Jackson once told me that when his south suburban airport commission was soliciting bids from private developers, one of the largest construction firms in the world pulled out, telling him that the city of Chicago had threatened to never give them any business if they got involved in the airport.
Quinn and state legislators throughout the south suburbs painted a rosy picture for the airport’s future during the bill-signing ceremony at Governors State University.
All the regional political warfare was in the past, people from Cook, Will and Kankakee counties were now working together, everyone who had ever served in Springfield had worked their butts off to make the airport a reality.
That was the message. Illinois, led by Quinn, is going to do this.
Of course, by 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to finally sign off on the project, Quinn may no longer be in office.
The gubernatorial election is in 2014, and one of the candidates in the Democratic primary is Bill Daley, brother of former Chicago Mayor Richard M, Daley, who helped stall the South Suburban Airport for more than a decade.
In fact, Jackson claimed it was Bill Daley who — as U.S. secretary of commerce under President Bill Clinton — got the FAA to put the third airport proposal in the deep freeze.
As far as I know, no one has asked Bill Daley where he stands on a South Suburban Airport.
Will County Executive Larry Walsh Sr., who unlike Einhorn was invited by the governor to speak at the bill signing, sounded enthusiastic at first. But at the end of his little speech, he expressed concerns that he had voiced more forcefully to me minutes before the ceremony.
“I have a lot of people in Will County wondering why the state is moving forward with the airport, buying all the land, before the FAA has completed an environmental impact statement,” Walsh said.
“I’m looking forward to the environmental impact statement so we can finally find out what the impact of building this airport on farmland will be.”
Walsh, who grew up on a farm, once told me that he preferred the farms not be paved over for an airport.
When I suggested to him Thursday that he sounded as if he preferred the airport not be built, he said that wasn’t the case.
“I just want an answer for all the people I keep hearing from who are concerned about the environmental impact,” he said.
And getting the FAA’s approval on that score is crucial to the state, although the Illinois transportation secretary told me all signs from the FAA point toward a green light for the airport.
I asked the governor the question I hear most often from third airport critics.
Why is he so confident the South Suburban Airport will fly, when the nearby Gary-Chicago International Airport has struggled for years?
Quinn said Chicago has an international port, that there are numerous intermodal facilities in the area, railroads and trucks carrying cargo and that there are 1.6 million people living in the vicinity of the airport.
“That would be one of the largest cities in the country,” Quinn said. “The South Suburban Airport will attract cargo and passengers.”
I mentioned that Gary has nearly all of the same advantages, but it has not succeeded.
Quinn pretty much repeated what he had said, adding that Illinois is the largest inland port in the nation.
His secretary of transportation, Ann Schneider, did tell me that studies indicate demand for cargo flights in the Chicago region will double by the year 2040.
But she said she didn’t know enough about the Gary airport to elaborate on why it has been a disappointment, even though it is financially subsidized by Chicago.
I believe the most significant hurdle for the state will be devising the contract offer for private developers who might be interested in building and operating the airport.
If it is too restrictive, if the state wants too much authority or too large a piece of the profits, there may not be any bidders.
The fact is there is only a handful of companies in the world that have built and developed airports.
That’s most of the negatives, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the south suburbs desperately need economic development.
There is no other project that could potentially produce the jobs and investment that an airport would.
All the politicians talked about job creation on Thursday. No doubt that will resonate with a lot of people.
But right now this airport represents hope for the future. There hasn’t been a whole lot of that.