Column: Boosters support bill that would require state to seek … – Chicago Tribune

An impressive collection of lawmakers, municipal officials, civic leaders, businesses and others are rallying to show newly unified support for the proposed South Suburban Airport.

Planners have proposed a so-called third airport near Peotone and Monee to serve the Chicago area for more than 30 years. Politics and economics, however, have kept the project from getting off the ground.

A new rallying point is legislation that revives a bill sponsored last year by state Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood. If approved, House Bill 2531 would require the state to seek competitive proposals from private investors to develop the airport as a cargo facility to serve the Southland’s booming warehouse and logistics industry.

More than 240 supporters signed witness slips for an Illinois House State Government Administration Committee hearing on the bill. The hearing initially was set for March 1 but was rescheduled for March 8, said Reggie Greenwood, executive director of the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation.

“It’s a substantive list,” Greenwood said. “There are a lot of business people on the list. It demonstrates how much the region is behind moving this thing along.”

In addition to 241 proponents who signed witness slips, 21 witnesses indicated opposition to the project. Farmers and rural Will County residents have fought the proposed airport for more than a generation.

The hearing could mark a significant step in yearslong efforts to make progress toward the airport becoming a reality. Decades ago, planners pitched Peotone as a passenger facility and Chicago fought the plan to preserve interests at O’Hare and Midway.

State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, addresses a Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation forum about the proposed South Suburban Airport in September in Richton Park.

State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, addresses a Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation forum about the proposed South Suburban Airport in September in Richton Park. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

In recent years, however, Amazon and others have driven demand for a cargo airport. O’Hare and Midway lack airspace capacity to handle additional flights, proponents say, and Rockford is too far away. Gary, Indiana, poses the biggest competitive threat to the South Suburban Airport.

Greenwood and other boosters have publicly said investors are seriously interested in building runways and other improvements on state-owned land. The Davis bill seeks to force the state to solicit development proposals.

The South Suburban Airport is pitched as a public-private partnership. Private investors would build and operate the airport on land leased from the state. Illinois has paid more than $100 million over the years to assemble most of the land needed for the project.

Progress seemed to have stalled, however, after the state paid $34 million in 2014 for Bult Field, 28261 S. Kedzie Ave., Monee. The state would still need to acquire additional land, update an environmental impact study and seek final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to move forward with the project.

Lawmakers have authorized the Illinois Department of Transportation to spend more than $200 million to engineer and build a new Interstate 57 interchange, extend utilities and improve roads to serve the proposed airport.

Despite growing demand for additional air cargo capacity in the region, boosters seem to have struggled to show meaningful progress on the airport. Civic leaders from Chicago’s South Side wards to rural eastern Will County have touted how the airport would create jobs and other opportunities in struggling communities.

Two other lawmakers, state Reps. Debbie Meyers-Martin, D-Matteson and Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago Heights, have signed on as co-sponsors of the Davis bill. The fact that the bill quickly made it out of the Rules Committee is considered an encouraging sign.

Supporters signing witness slips include mayors or other representatives of Alsip, Blue Island, Burnham, Country Club Hills, Crete, East Hazel Crest, Flossmoor, Glenwood, Harvey, Hazel Crest, Homewood, Lansing, Matteson, Midlothian, Park Forest, Posen, Richton Park, South Chicago Heights, South Holland, Thornton, Tinley Park, University Park and Worth.

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Three Chicago aldermen signed witness slips, as did Cook County Board members Donna Miller and Monica Gordon, along with government officials from Kankakee County. Representatives of Governors State University, Prairie State College and South Suburban College signed on as supporters.

Supporters represented a wide array of businesses and groups, including real estate and construction companies, labor unions and banks. Prominent organizations on the list included the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, Pace, Wintrust Financial and YWCA.

Davis filed his bill Feb. 15 and seeks to amend a 2013 law called the Public-Private Partnerships for the South Suburban Airport Act. A key provision would be to change the word “may” to “shall” in a sentence about the state seeking requests for development proposals.

The Davis bill also would define “cargo-oriented development” to clarify the project would serve freight, manufacturing and logistics interests as opposed to passenger air travel.

If approved, the measure would require the state to begin the process of seeking proposals from qualified vendors within six months of the bill being signed into law.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

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