Editorial: When will the ghost of the Peotone airport folly finally stop haunting Illinois?


We don’t believe in ghosts. We do, however, believe in the specter of the Illinois boondoggle, a tax revenue-devouring phantasm that haunts taxpayers with empty promises of job bonanzas and an economic nirvana.

That specter has taken various forms over the years. The Illiana tollway was a proposed trucking highway that Illinois didn’t need and couldn’t afford. The $2 billion Crosstown Expressway concept lingered through the 1960s and ’70s, till then Mayor Jane Byrne finally killed it. There have been others, many others.

The one that makes us truly shudder, though, the one that makes Jacob Marley look like Casper, is the Poltergeist from Peotone, aka the South Suburban Airport.

There’s not a talisman or incantation in the world that can ward off the persistence of the Peotone pipe dream. It keeps coming back, even after the airlines have said thanks but no thanks again and again, even after hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have disappeared into the fantasy airport’s rabbit hole.

Peotone’s latest iteration comes in the form of a cargo airport. The pitch from south suburban lawmakers and mayors centers on the explosive growth of e-commerce, and the need for transportation logistics to link up the Chicago region to the world’s online economy.

A bill recently proposed by state Rep. William “Will” Davis, a Democrat from south suburban Hazel Crest, would have the Illinois Department of Transportation seek potential developers for a South Suburban Airport within six months of the proposed legislation’s enactment.

“So it’s been said, who’s going to build it, who wants to build it?” Davis said at a news conference last week. “This is an effort to … see who’s out there who has the capacity, the drive, the desire and the resources to build this airport.”

There’s no doubt that Chicago’s Southland region needs an economic shot in the arm. The steel mills and factories that were the economic bulwark of the south and southwest suburbs are long gone. And when the jobs go, people go and tax rates soar. Southland suburbs usually have some of the Chicago region’s highest tax rates — according to 2021 data from the Cook County clerk’s office, Park Forest’s average composite property tax rate was a startling 41.56%; Riverdale’s was 31.09% and Phoenix’s, 29.95%. No doubt, the region craves jobs, businesses and a far more robust tax base.

But there’s never been any sign that a Peotone airport would provide that economic spark. Why? Because there’s never been any indication that the airlines, either passenger or cargo, are interested in a third airport.

Proponents of the South Suburban Airport have been pitching the idea as far back as the 1980s. Former Gov. Jim Edgar backed it, as did former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who pleaded guilty in 2013 to wire and mail fraud charges and served prison time. Early on, we even liked the idea, with the caveat that private investors should shoulder the cost, and that the airlines show their commitment to the project.

But buy-in from the airlines at O’Hare International Airport and Midway Airport never came. At the time, both American and United airlines argued the location simply wasn’t sufficiently appealing to their customers. And Southwest long ago went all-in on Midway Airport, which that airline dominates. Even Delta Air Lines now is sitting much prettier at O’Hare’s Terminal 5. Later, proponents of Peotone retooled the project into a proposal for a cargo hub.

But even that idea rests on a need that doesn’t exist. O’Hare’s massive overhaul includes expanded capacity for cargo movement. Midway doesn’t handle many cargo flights, but both Chicago Rockford International Airport and Gary Chicago International Airport have ample cargo capacity.

Perhaps the Peotone cargo project would get a bit more traction if Amazon and other e-commerce giants had jumped on board — but they’ve been silent on the idea. That’s because it’s cheaper to ship most cargo by either truck or rail. Goods shipped by air represent a smaller subset — usually more expensive items such as consumer electronic goods and pharmaceuticals, as well as time-sensitive products such as perishable seafood and some agricultural goods.

Even Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who we took to task in 2019 for earmarking $205 million for roads to the nonexistent airport, recently stressed the need to see solid interest from cargo airlines before proceeding with Peotone. “What you don’t want is, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ right?” Pritzker said. “You need to make sure that you’re building it because you have interest from cargo carriers who are committing to make that a cargo airport.”

Pritzker’s right. Why build an airport on the faint hope that the entities it’s intended for will suddenly have a change of heart and hop on the Peotone bandwagon? The Chicago region and the rest of Illinois have been haunted long enough by the imagined need for a third airport.

Be gone, Peotone pie in the sky! Torment us no more!

Join the discussion on Twitter @chitribopinions and on Facebook.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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March 27, 2023 at 06:54AM

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