Peotone airport: State lawmakers shouldn’t rush to spend more money on flawed proposal

Aerial of a carving in a cornfield near Peotone opposing the proposed airport in 1999.

Robert A. Davis-Sun-Times

Decades ago, the idea of buying up land for a Peotone airport that would be available should O’Hare Airport hit its capacity seemed like a fore-sighted government move.

But O’Hare has expanded, and the need for a Peotone airport in Will County is not at all clear. The state Senate should not support a bill sponsored by state Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, that would require the Illinois Department of Transportation to pursue proposals within six months from developers interested in building a Peotone cargo airport.

The bill, which essentially would keep alive plans for the airport, already has passed in the House. It would promote a plan that good public policy dictates should be grounded.

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At first, Peotone was envisioned as a sprawling passenger airport that could meet all of the region’s needs and preserve Chicago’s standing as a major aviation hub. But now that the upgraded O’Hare and Midway airports appear able to carry the load, backers of the Peotone airport instead envision building a cargo-handling airport on the site, which sprawls over more than 4,500 acres. The state has spent nearly $100 million buying up the land, even as no passenger airlines have said they support the airport proposal.

O’Hare, Rockford, Gary airports already taking on cargo

It also appears doubtful there will be sufficient demand to enable a Peotone cargo airport to pay for itself. O’Hare is opening a new $56 million cargo facility. The Chicago Rockford International Airport has invested $200 million into building a cargo hub. The Gary Chicago International Airport has available capacity. The Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport is planning a 288,000-square-foot air cargo facility. And just like the passenger airlines before them, cargo air carriers are not supporting the Peotone idea.

Backers of the Peotone airport want the construction jobs and employment for workers from the south and southwest parts of Chicago and the suburbs. They see it as a necessary economic engine for the region, which certainly could use — and deserves — a shot in the arm.

But construction jobs disappear once a project is completed, and neither the state nor local government can afford to be stuck with an airport that needs to be propped up financially year in and year out. The MidAmerica Airport on the eastern edge of the St. Louis metro area has required annual subsidies since it opened in 1997. It’s an example of how the “build it, and they will come” idea does not necessarily work.

Moreover, the commute from the Chicago area to Peotone is too long for many potential workers who don’t happen to live near Interstate 57. There isn’t a strong public transportation network to the site. Most people employed at the airport, should it be built, probably would have to move to be closer to it.

More spending, environmental harm

An airport at Peotone probably would also start people thinking about building new highways to link the airport to existing area multimodal cargo hubs and e-commerce fulfillment warehouses, which would add to the cost and cover up prime agricultural land with pavement. The Chicago region really needs to focus on improving its existing roads, bridges and public transit, instead of leaving all that deferred work on the back burner while it builds new stuff. And the state owns only 90% of the land it needs for an airport; it would still need to pony up for the remaining 10%.

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Environmentalists say the airport and new roads would lead to paving over wetlands, destroying flood plains, damaging the quality of streams and harming the remarkable Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said he wants assurance cargo carriers would use Peotone before he climbs aboard the idea.

Chicago’s South and Southwest sides and the suburbs near them do need economic help. But for the money it would take to build, operate and sustain a Peotone airport, other initiatives could do far more good.

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April 29, 2023 at 05:14AM

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