Pols to Pritzker: Clear third airport for takeoff

SHARE Pols to Pritzker: Clear third airport for takeoff

Rep. Robin Kelly at a roundtable discussion with members of
Congress and leadership from federal agencies Janurary. File Photo. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Fifty-four elected officials — led by U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly and including Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan — are asking Gov. J.B. Pritzker for $150 million in state funds to help spur a project that’s been stalled for decades: a new airport in south suburban Peotone.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., also joined the dozens of state senators, state representatives, Cook County commissioners, south suburban mayors and Chicago aldermen to sign the letter requesting the $150 million appropriation in this year’s capital bill.

Taking the lead is Kelly, who is following in the steps of her predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who made the push for a south suburban airport his signature issue before resigning in 2012 in the face of a 30-month prison term for diverting political contributions for personal use.

“The time has come to finally build the South Suburban Airport, so Illinois can reclaim its aviation pre-eminence and boost our economy,” the letter reads. “As proposed, it will create an economic engine south of Chicago that would generate tens of thousands of jobs, hundreds of millions in annual tax revenues, and billions in new economic activity for Illinois.”

Kelly’s office says there’s a “confluence of factors” spurring the latest push: a new governor and Chicago mayor in support of the project and a big infrastructure bill brewing in the Legislature ahead of a late May deadline.

Asked for a response to the letter, Pritzker’s office issued a statement that didn’t exactly show outright support for the airport, but spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said “passing a capital bill is a top priority for the governor this legislative session.”

“Bipartisan working groups are discussing various components of a capital plan and the administration is working with federal partners and engaging local stakeholders on the needs for their communities as the process moves forward,” the statement said.

And Lightfoot offered up a careful response, highlighting the need to support economic development while also protecting existing institutions.

“Midway is an incredible economic force for the Chicago’s Southwest Side. Its growth has been a major driver for development of the area and the city’s tourism industry. I am committed to supporting economic development that transforms neighborhoods, but we must also protect the existing institutions which have been spearheading so much current investment and growth,” Lightfoot said in a statement to the Sun-Times.

“If and when the time comes, I will be actively engaged in the conversation about an additional airport while ensuring that our investments in Midway continue to provide economic development.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his predecessor, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, vehemently opposed a third airport in the south suburbs, advocating instead for expansion at O’Hare Airport.

Aerial of a carving in a cornfield near Peotone opposing the proposed airport in 1999. File Photo by Robert A. Davis-Sun-Times

Aerial of a carving in a cornfield near Peotone opposing the proposed airport in 1999. File Photo by Robert A. Davis-Sun-Times

Kelly’s letter asks for a $150 million appropriation in the 2020 capital bill for initial off-site improvements, including a new interchange on Interstate 57, local road upgrades and connectivity to utilities, which she called essential projects “even without an airport due to the booming I-57 logistics corridor in South Cook and Will Counties.”

The letter warns that without a third Chicago-area airport, airlines will move their domestic hubs out of O’Hare, just as United and American Airlines did.

According to the letter, the planning is “90%” done, with the state owning 90% of the land and the Federal Aviation Administration having approved 90% of the pre-planning: “The FAA now awaits only the final detailed ‘master plan’ to issue a final Record of Decision,” the letter states.

And the letter credits the work of five governors over decades for starting the process, comparing the struggles to the building of O’Hare.

“Despite widespread opposition, Mayor Richard J. Daley alone had the foresight to build O’Hare,” the letter says. “Imagine Chicago today if he hadn’t.”

His son famously contended the third airport wasn’t necessary and would threaten O’Hare and Midway, after his own third airport plan at Lake Calumet on the Southeast Side failed to take off. Richard M. Daley also claimed the infrastructure didn’t exist for the south suburban airport, despite the proposed location being bound by Interstate 57 and Interstate 394. There’s also a Metra station nearby

Kelly’s office said former Gov. Bruce Rauner was among the five governors who helped move the project forward, with an Illinois Department of Transportation in 2017 sending out requests for information (RFI) — seeking private developers.

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