CHICAGO — Plans for a south suburban airport are back on the political front burner, this time with talk about how it could be used by e-commerce giants like Amazon.
The idea of an airport in Peotone, located in the rural exurbs 44 miles south of Chicago, has been debated for decades. The proposal was revived in this year's Illinois budget, with $162 million allocated toward road improvements that would connect I-57 to the proposed airport site, along with an environmental review and the completion of a master plan.
The airport proposal has a shot this time, both because e-commerce companies could use it for transporting goods to and from massive distribution centers south of the city, and because the state is putting money into it, said DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman.
"The stars have aligned both politically and economically, with interested politicians and prospective customers for the cargo business," Schwieterman said. "Years of acquiring land has set the stage for a fairly fast timetable."
But opponents, including environmentalists and Will County farmers, say the airport would be a waste of both rich agricultural land and public money. They also say it's not needed, given available capacity at Rockford, Gary and O'Hare airports.
"Either the project proponents are right and we hear a giant sucking sound of jobs and people moving out of south Chicago and the south suburbs into what is currently farmland, and all the environmental destruction that goes with that, or the proponents are wrong and we've wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on something nobody wants," said Kevin Brubaker, deputy director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an environmental legal advocacy group. "So pick your poison."
Plans for a south suburban airport began in the 1980s, and the Illinois Department of Transportation started buying land surrounding the Will County site in 2002. The state owns about 5,000 acres for the airport -- almost all of the proposed 6,000-acre "inaugural footprint" for the airport, said Rick Bryant, senior advisor to Congresswoman Robin Kelly, a Chicago Democrat and airport proponent.
The project stalled under the administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner, who expressed little interest in it. But new money in the state budget for improvements near the site had the support of dozens of mayors and lawmakers, including House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Currently, there's no easy way to get to the site, Bryant said. He said advocates also hope there's enough money to connect utilities to the property, such as natural gas, water and electricity.
Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said the state has not yet identified any preliminary engineering, design work or land acquisition for the project to connect Eagle Lake Road south of Monee with I-57. More will be known in the coming weeks, when the state releases its multiyear plan.
INow is the time for Peotone, because e-commerce has exploded and companies are looking for a place for their planes, Bryant said.
"We're going to have to build capacity nationwide, and Chicago should be the at the center of that," Bryant said. He said an airport "is the greatest job generator" in the world and would help the South Side and south suburbs, which have been hurt by the loss of steel and other manufacturing jobs.
A south suburban airport, which would offer a mix of cargo and passenger service, would be developed by a private investor, and there is interest from the private sector, Bryant said.
Some companies that might use the airport are staying neutral on the subject.
UPS Airlines doesn't have a position regarding an additional airport in the Chicago area. It operates about a half a dozen flights from O'Hare nightly, but its major operation in the area is at the Chicago Rockford International Airport, where UPS has a regional hub with about three dozen flights per night, said spokesman Jim Mayer.
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Amazon representatives did not respond to a request for comments.
Asked to comment about Peotone, representatives of American and Southwest airlines said they were focused on their operations at Chicago's existing airports.
Judy Ogalla, a Monee farmer and Republican Will County Board member who owns land that is part of the proposed site, said the state would be better off investing money in job training in the south suburbs and Chicago's South Side.
"We have great soil," Ogalla said. "It doesn't have any sense to pave over that when we have an airport in Gary."
George Ochsenfeld, president of the anti-Peotone Airport group "Shut This Airport Nightmare Down," doesn't see any interest from airlines or developers, and rated his level of worry about the airport at a "3? on a scale of 1-10.
Brubaker, of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said that 1,200 acres of flood plains and 180 acres of wetlands would be destroyed by the construction.
Also opposing the Peotone proposal is the Chicago Rockford International Airport, which sits on 3,000 acres and says it has room to expand. Executive director Michael Dunn said in a letter on the airport's website that the airport saw a 55% increase in landed cargo weight in 2018, and it expects cargo traveling through the airport to increase through UPS and Amazon partnerships.
"We are currently working with local and state officials who are advocating for the airport and to put an end to the Peotone noise once and for all," Dunn wrote.
Adam Gypalo, a spokesman for the Gary International Airport, declined comment on Peotone, but said Gary was focused on growth. The airport expanded its runway four years ago, and built an international customs facility late last year.
Cargo capacity has increased at O'Hare International Airport, which handled almost 1.9 million metric tons of air cargo last year, a new high, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Aviation officials said the airport is adding an additional 800,000 square feet of cargo processing space, a project that will be completed by 2021.
Bryant disputed the claims about extra cargo capacity at Rockford, Gary and O'Hare, saying that if Rockford gets too big it will start interfering with O'Hare traffic. Bryant also noted that Gary is landlocked, and can't expand further.
If all goes as planned, Bryant imagines a first flight from Peotone in five years.
"Some city is going to build a new airport," Bryant said. "We would prefer it be Chicago."
Transportation song quiz
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