Column: Southland officials seek Gov. Pritzker’s support to move forward with South Suburban Airport – Chicago Tribune

South suburban officials are touting new legislation in a bid to get Gov. J.B. Pritzker to support the proposed South Suburban Airport.

If approved, a bill introduced Thursday would require the state to issue a request for quotations, or RFQ, to gauge interest from private investors seeking to develop the so-called third airport proposed for land near Peotone and Monee.

State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, introduced the bill and told a group Friday he recently met with investors who want to develop the project.

“We’re trying to force, if I can say it that way, force the administration, the Department of Transportation, to put an RFQ out there so that this group or any other group that is willing to can step up to the plate and try to help us get this project finally done,” Davis told a Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation forum in Richton Park.

House Bill 5810 seeks to amend existing legislation by changing one word in a 2013 public act that said the state “may” move forward with the airport.

“Sometimes when the state doesn’t want to do anything you say may,” Davis said. “Instead of may, we’re saying shall.”

Airport opponents over the years often have cited the lack of a private development partner as one reason the state should not move forward with the proposed airport. Critics have whined about the cost of building a proposed Interstate 57 interchange and other infrastructure to serve the facility.

Davis said he and other airport supporters met with investors who want to publicly reveal their interest in the project, though he did not identify them.

“Folks that I’ve been in a conversation with have said what they’d like to be able to do is to actually show themselves,” Davis said. “They’re prepared to present themselves and say, ‘This is who we are, this is what we have, this is what we are capable of doing.’”

Support for the airport seems to have plateaued since Democrat Pat Quinn lost the 2014 gubernatorial race to Republican Bruce Rauner. Pritzker’s defeat of Rauner in 2018 revived hopes the project would once again move forward.

Lawmakers authorized more than $200 million in spending on infrastructure for the airport through Pritzker’s Rebuild Illinois program. The state earlier this year selected an engineering firm to design improvements.

But overall, Southland officials have been disappointed by Pritzker’s apparent lack of support for the airport.

“We don’t quite understand why this administration is having trouble with a large-scale economic development project that will bring jobs, money and resources to the state of Illinois,” Davis told a group of more than 100 local officials and business leaders. “I can’t figure out why he has a problem with that.”

Lawmakers, local officials and other airport supporters have repeatedly encouraged Pritzker to support the airport, Davis said.

“He’s heard from us,” Davis said. “He knows this is something that’s important to us and valuable to us here in the Southland region. Why he just doesn’t seem to want to move forward with it, I have no idea.”

The South Suburban Airport is proposed for the site of Bult Field near Monee. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

Pritzker’s press office did not immediately respond Friday to a request for reaction to the legislation proposed by Davis.

“The project is under review as the administration is evaluating the best approach for the region’s aviation system and economic development,” a Pritzker representative told me in 2019. “The governor looks forward to discussing the future of the project with local stakeholders.”

Davis encouraged officials to ask Pritzker to support the airport if the incumbent governor seeks their support in his bid for a second term. Pritzker faces Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey in the Nov. 8 election.

“In a political season, we know the governor’s folks will come out here to the Southland and say, ‘Hey, I need you guys to support me, I need to defeat the Republican,’” Davis said. “I get that. I’m a Democrat, I’m going to support the governor no matter what. But if he asks the question sometimes we’ll say, ‘Governor, we’ll be with you but we need you to be with us on something as well.’”

High turnout among Black voters in the south suburbs contributes to Democrats holding every statewide office and supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature.

The South Suburban Airport is proposed for the site of Bult Field, an existing airport operating at 28261 S. Kedzie Ave., Monee. The state has spent about $100 million since 2002 to acquire more than 4,500 acres for the airport.

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To move forward, the state would need to acquire more land and seek to update an environmental impact study to obtain federal approval for the project.

Supporters have said the facility would be a Chicago-area cargo hub for goods shipped by air.

“We’re not trying to compete passenger-wise with O’Hare or Midway,” Davis said. “For those of you who live in the Southland, you can see the cargo growth that has taken place in the Southland. It’s obvious. Facilities are going up everywhere in addition to companies like Amazon that operate in this vein.”

High gas prices have increased the need for another large airport to serve the Chicago area. O’Hare and Midway lack additional airspace capacity to handle the boom in air cargo driven in part by increased shopping online.

“Right now Amazon is operating a lot of its cargo out of Rockford,” Davis told the Richton Park audience. “The cost of transporting that cargo from Rockford down here to its distribution facilities would be cut significantly if there was an opportunity for them to fly an airplane into an airport just south of where we are today.”

Ted Slowik is a columnist with the Daily Southtown.

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