By ROBERT HEUER
Third airport for Chicago?
Political charges flying over ever building a new airport.
The Third Airport debate itself is becoming one of the longest in Midwest history, going back to the 1960s. Proponents concede unless the master planning process begins within a year, the FAA-financed studies that apparently justify the need will themselves be obsolete.
"Nothing can stop this airport technically," said Edward Paesel, director of the Illinois Department of Transportation's (IDOT) Third Airport Information Clearinghouse, seated in front of bookshelves containing what he believes to be the evidence — 10,000 pages of taxpayer-subsidized consultant studies and 36 boxes of newspaper clippings. Gesturing toward site maps adorning the walls in his office at the Chicago Heights headquarters of the Regional Economic Development Coordinating Council, he says the only stumbling block "is the political will to follow through. If we don't build this, it'll be a loss for the Chicago region and the nation as a whole. There's no question about that."
New airport boosters are unrealistic, critics say, suggesting the national transportation landscape is more likely to include eventual expansion of Midway and a high-speed rail link between Chicago and Milwaukee, whose Mitchell International Airport is now marketed as the "Third Airport" in what would most accurately be called megalopitan Chicago. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is no longer even promoting airport construction. Its top legislative priority this fall is the High-Speed Rail Development Act to provide seed money for redevelopment of rail corridors and creation of new technology — an effort that federal officials call "central to sustained, widespread economic growth and the preservation of the United States' international competitiveness in the next century."
The Chicago Third Airport debate in Illinois seems as dated as the 20th century. Driven by politics, the need for a new airport and the various sites for it have been bandied about in the public arena with many of the debating points from studies that are full of self-serving assumptions: Airline flights will perpetually grow; fundamental problems in airline economics can be quickly solved; one area's gain won't come at another's expense. Indeed, airport boosters talk about serving transportation needs but may be more interested in fostering real estate development opportunities like those that erupted around O'Hare in the last 50 years.
The boosters include The South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association (SSMMA), Sen. Aldo DeAngelis (R-40, Olympia Fields) and a business/civic consortium called the Third Airport Alliance. Their studies put the airport site near Peotone on a rolling stretch of eastern Will County farmland south of University Park. Their claims: The area's growing passenger load dictates the need for a new airport; the favored site has 2.5 million people living within a 45-minute drive, assuming that the tollway is built; the commercial aviation industry wants more air carrier facilities; this new airport would create a quarter million jobs by 2020 without stealing
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business from Chicago's two other airports, O'Hare and Midway, thus assuring Illinois' position as linchpin in the national transportation network.
DeAngelis disagrees with critics of a Peotone airport, arguing, "This isn't just designed to feed the south suburbs but the economic engine of the whole area." With O'Hare overcrowded and unable to add runways due to opposition from neighboring communities, he said, unless a new airport is built Illinois will lose revenue when airlines go to less congested hubs elsewhere in the country, taking convention center business with them.
DeAngelis says he became convinced of the project's economic validity two years ago when he and IDOT officials met in Secy. of State George H. Ryan's office with the Arrow Group — a consortium of airport developers and managers, bankers and builders who promised $500 million, almost one-third the cost of building the airport's first phase. DeAngelis said private sector support — and Daley's short-lived participation in the third airport "sweepstakes" — underscore the need.
Publicly Daley blamed recalcitrant Senate Republicans, whose support Edgar staffers were confident of enlisting in the next try for legislative approval. The governor knew the new airport faced local opposition from environmental and neighborhood groups. What was not as apparent was that the mayor was also taking heat from two powerful Chicago Democrats: U.S. Rep. William O. Lipinski and House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, both representing legions of southwest side voters in and around Midway Airport, suggesting that a Lake Calumet airport might hurt Midway.
The city of Chicago, which owns O'Hare and Midway, has opposed any state-run airport that would dilute its monopoly over regional air terminals. Chicago's aviation department officials are now improving the two airports, which they say can handle projected regional demand for the next 10 or 15 years. Maybe in 2013, the political apparatus will be using FAA studies as a tactic to lay groundwork for land condemnations that would make possible Midway expansion. For now, however, Midway has plenty of room to grow; its capacity is only at 70 percent of its 1991 level before Midway Airlines closed down. Soon to be linked to downtown by a Chicago Transit Authority line, the air terminal has embarked on a capital improvement program with $400 million that otherwise would have gone to help build a Lake Calumet airport.
No major airport is likely to be built in America in the 20th century, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Federico Pena has said. He knows the difficulties involved. As mayor of Denver, he endured a 10-year fight to build an airport that opens in December. Political squabbles aren't the only factor crippling airport construction efforts. Funding sources are uncertain especially with commercial aviation deeply troubled.
Washington can't afford to increase its substantial support of the industry. A 1988 Congressional Budget Office study found passenger ticket taxes pay 45 percent of the federal component of air travel (such as traffic controllers and safety regulation), with taxpayers subsidizing the balance. And airlines, whose commitment to pay landing fees is what finances construction bonds, aren't reliable candidates for long-term promises. Who can figure out what's even going on today in an industry that has reported losses of $10.5 billion since 1990 — more money than airlines made since the Wright Brothers took off in 1903.
In the 21st century, the most competitive airports will offer foreign travelers the greatest access to U.S. domestic locations, said Edward Beauvais, founder and former chairman of America West Airlines. The biggest gateways — New York and Los Angeles — offer direct and nonstop flights to 22 domestic markets. Chicago is third, connecting to 20 cities. Build another airport, Beauvais reasons, and Chicago would have the space to become a bigger global player, competing favorably with the coastal gateways as well as such inland upstarts as Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth and Atlanta.
"There's not sufficient evidence that Chicago needs a new airport," said Smithsonian Air & Space Museum air transport curator R.E.T. Davies, contending aircraft are reaching maximal productivity in size and speed and that passenger growth is leveling off. Describing the U.S. as a generation behind Europe for failing to develop high-speed rail networks (airlines like Lufthansa also own rail lines), he said what's really needed is high-speed, intercity trains that connect with airports so that passengers from up to 350 miles away can transfer to long-range jet liners. Such an arrangement would reduce airport congestion by eliminating many feeder flights which tend to be unprofitable anyway.
Modernizing old railroad beds won't be cheap, but the reuse of infrastructure is essential. "The transition of transportation into the 21st century will continue the shift in focus from building expansive new systems and facilities to improving existing facilities and making them operate more efficiently," according to a preliminary document for IDOT's 2020 Plan.
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Despite admitting that "the era of unlimited expansion ended with the completion of the interstate system 20 years ago," IDOT still sees Chicago and a new airport as twin hubs of a high speed rail-system, connecting the Chicago region with St. Louis, the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Detroit.
New-airport proponents base their arguments on two IDOT-supported, FAA-funded studies whose forecasts give highspeed rail little more credence than personal spaceships. Clearly, Illinois isn't meeting a challenge made by Maj. Gen. Harold George at the 1943 dedication of the warplane factory on the site of O'Hare: that the region's destiny "depends upon the vision of its people — to see what lies just over the horizon."
The problem it seems is an airport fixation for economic development. O'Hare, which handled a record 841,000 flights last year, is 90 percent of a Chicago airport system providing 343,000 direct and indirect jobs as well as $14 billion in annual economic activity — about 6.5 percent of the region's gross product. In recent decades, it has transformed regional growth patterns — moving the leading employment center from a concentric circle around the Loop to one around the airport. The shining star of post-World-War-II economic development engines, O'Hare is a dazzling model that many cities have tried to replicate. Chicago began thinking about replicating O'Hare in 1966 when the first Mayor Daley considered a south suburban site that the city might strip annex along the then proposed Interstate 57. In 1968, after the FAA commissioned a report which urged the development of another major airport, Daley explored several southern sites, including a floating Lake Michigan site that was abandoned following environmental objections.
The Third Airport debate began anew in 1985, after the FAA's call for another airport led the General Assembly to approve a resolution — sponsored by DeAngelis and then Sen. Robert Kustra (R-Park Ridge) — to explore regional air capacity needs. SSMMA, the predominantly Cook County board which first endorsed a new airport in the 1960s, was awarded a $500,000 Build Illinois grant to do a study. FAA funding drew Wisconsin and Indiana into the Chicago Airport Capacity Study, a two-year undertaking in which consultant Peat Marwick & Main (PMM) concluded that a new airport would be needed by 2000 and that the search should be confined to the underserved southern half of the region.
Opposition arose on several fronts, blasting holes in many of the report's assumptions, among them passenger projections and lowball costs. Led by all three regional planning agencies and the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry, the Chicago Airport Capacity Study's technical committee decided not to pursue a master plan. The consensus was that existing airports could handle all forecasted aviation demand for the foreseeable future. (Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport now markets itself as the "Third Airport" in what would most accurately be called megalopolitan Chicago.)
Nevertheless, the Chicago Airport Capacity Study's policy committee, representing elected officials and the aviation industry, forged ahead on PMM's recommendations.
Wisconsin dropped out, apparently satisfied that Mitchell's designation by PMM as "a supplemental airport" would help Milwaukee gain federal monies as a high-speed rail corridor. In 1989, the newly formed Illinois-Indiana Regional Airport Commission chose TAMS Consultants Inc. to consider the merits of four sites: Gary Regional Airport, Bi-State, Kankakee and Peotone. When Mayor Daley got involved, Chicago produced its own study, concluding that an airport could be located within its borders at the Lake Calumet site. As regional aviation's two-ton gorilla, the city's interest made the Third Airport suddenly feasible, and the Illinois-Indiana commission picked Lake Calumet as the site in time to get the Bush administration pledge.
The governor's new position had a certain political logic. With a new airport in the works, he would play peacemaker — encouraging O'Hare-area residents to consent to construction of a short-term, limited-use runway there that would reduce delays and, thus, satisfy airlines and business users.
At the time, Daley suggested the shift was a pre-1994 election ploy to create the impression that the governor had a job development strategy. "It's only a study and that comes out in 1996," Daley told a City Hall news conference. Privately, he told office visitors that someone must own lots of land near Peotone. Even Edgar staffers, when promoting Lake Calumet, had encouraged reporters to investigate the rumor that politicians were buying land near the rural sites.
As the historic route to quick money, land grabs play vividly in the American imagination. Yet, this one didn't wash, for one thing because land holding costs are so steep that few speculators would risk capital unless the odds for the airport improve dramatically. Current chances are almost nil, says Allan Hamilton, a DuPage County-based real estate developer
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who got rich building in the O'Hare corridor. In the booming 1960s, when working for Trammel Crow, Hamilton also bought up southern Cook County land, thinking that proximity to 1-80, railroad lines. Lake Michigan and a cheap labor force would make the area the best distribution point in America. "We ended up with a 1,000-year supply of land," he recalled. "The reason was, management lived up in Park Ridge or Downers Grove."
Hamilton's view — that the south suburbs will never be a magnet for O'Hare-like development — doesn't sit well with George Waddell, a Flossmoor-based residential realtor who said real estate men "should be chomping at the bit for all this dirt cheap land." In 1990, as president of the South Suburban Board of Realtors, Waddell persuaded local real estate interests to help finance a lobbying group called the Third Airport Alliance. "If we need more airport services, and apparently we do, then build a new airport where you have room to grow and not where you have a mess already," he argued.
The Chicago airport debate is shrouded in fog, noted John Crihfield, a University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs assistant professor, largely because all the studies proved what their sponsors were paying to hear. President of the Illinois Economic Association, Crihfield observed that the result is utter confusion over true costs and benefits.
Don't fault the south suburban boosters, said David Schultz, executive director of the Northwestern University Infrastructure Technology Institute and former chairman of the Milwaukee County Board. "Airport chasing beats smokestack chasing, which is subject to the caprice of industry decisions," he said. "And an airport is at least amenable to public influence."
But "public influence" hasn't been permitted truly to affect the decision-making process, according to Carol Henrichs, a Will County resident, Kankakee Journal reporter and founder of the citizens group Residents United to Retain Agricultural Lands (RURAL), noting that citizens were excluded from one public meeting and, at others, not allowed to speak. The no-airport group has sent the governor thousands of postcards and a 10,000-signature petition, yet administration public statements cite an absence of relevant local opposition. "We're totally ignored by the very people who should be listening to us," Henrichs said.
"Everyone has signed off on the need," DeAngelis said, noting that if decision-makers agree on anything, it's the unacceptability of the no-build alternative. Conceding that regional consensus is impossible, he said pro-airport forces pursue a local strategy of "tacit agreement of nondispute." The result has been a lot of smoke and mirrors.
The SSMMA pressed eastern Will County officials to form a subregional planning mechanism (one of the airport-development hoops) and then exaggerated local support in a 1991 letter to IDOT Secretary Kirk Brown. Although the planning group was finally formed last summer, some municipalities and townships aren't participating for fear their presence will be construed as airport support. Last year, anti-airport pressures led Richard Andersen to quit his post as mayor of Peotone.
Even unabashed Will County supporters seem to lack solid backing. As president of University Park, Vernon Young represents one of the Will County municipalities that embrace the Third Airport. He says the project would ignite development in a village of 6,000 founded several decades ago with dreams of becoming a south suburban Schaumburg. Village trustee Rudy Williams says Young should spend more time on immediate priorities, such as paving the road that runs out of town.
"It's ironic that the state of Illinois is putting off the transportation discussion it needs to have because this Third Airport debate keeps getting in the way," RURAL's Henrichs said. Policymakers need realistic goals, she said, such as fostering small business, the true engine of economic development, and strengthening the local farm economy as a way to help slow suburban sprawl and urban decline.
Prospects of more flip-flops, however, underscore a longstanding problem in America. When government lacks a rational energy and transportation policy, the free-enterprise system rushes to fill the void. A classic example was the 19th century speculative fever that sparked the building of a national canal system when the railroad era was lying just over the horizon. This protracted Third Airport debate could be another. "Placing all your bets on continued growth in domestic air travel could become a blunder of historic proportions," F.K. Pious, president of the Illinois High Speed Rail Association observed, recalling "all those well-meaning but unimaginative people who invested their family savings in nice, safe streetcar stocks the year before Ford started building the Model-T." *
Robert Heuer is a Chicago writer.
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