Runway Inflation | Feature | Chicago Reader

Runway Inflation 

Ignoring history, viable alternatives, and common sense, the people pushing for an airport in Peotone are dragging us all into their fantasy world.

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A disgusted newspaper columnist listened to a debate by the Democrats who wanted to be governor and discovered only one "with the guts to oppose the idiotic Peotone airport boondoggle." That was Michael Bakalis, and Bakalis would later drop out.

"The state is broke, children are hungry, schools are deteriorating, health care is being shorted, and the state wants to spend $75 million to buy land for an airport that doesn't even have preliminary approval from the federal government," the Daily Herald's Jack Mabley complained in a January column. And even when the governor announces that Illinois must cut 3,800 jobs and slash $500 million in programs and services, there's not a whisper of doubt about pushing on with Peotone. Mabley, who's been watching Illinois politics for close to forever, figures the governor likes the ring of a "George Ryan International Airport." As for the candidates to succeed him, "They favor the airport because they want donations for their campaign funds from contractors, lawyers and financiers who would get rich on Peotone contracts."

O'Hare and Midway airports are a gold mine of jobs, contracts, and campaign contributions. They're controlled by Chicago's City Hall. Suburban politicians have long dreamed of a gold mine of their own, and since 1985 three GOP administrations have spent over $100 million in state money on a "third" airport plan. This bottomless pot of what Kirk Brown calls "study money" has bought the perception that Peotone is both necessary and inevitable, though from Washington's perspective the only thing necessary and inevitable around here is a bigger O'Hare.

Brown is secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation. He's fixated on building what he calls Chicago's third airport, though Peotone would actually become the region's sixth. Only two of the present five operate at anything close to capacity--Chicago's O'Hare and Midway. For years, Milwaukee's Mitchell International has promoted itself as Chicago's third airport, and it wants to further exploit a northern Illinois market that already brings it half a million passengers a year. The other two airports are virtually empty. The Gary/Chicago Airport is eager to tap the south suburban Chicago market that IDOT claims is desperately underserved, and the Greater Rockford Airport, a hub for cargo carrier UPS, could serve the population growing along the outskirts of the northwest suburbs. All three of these airports have significant expansion plans. But the shelfful of "studies" IDOT has bought all conclude that the future requires a brand-new airport.

A third of the passengers at O'Hare and Midway are traveling 300 to 500 miles--making them the market for a proposed nine-state high-speed rail network that would have Chicago as its hub. Congressional support for this network is growing, but IDOT is dismissive of high-speed rail as an alternative to air travel. Illinois has allocated $60 million toward the construction of a new rail corridor between Chicago and Saint Louis that eventually could run through the Peotone cornfields. A high-speed rail link to O'Hare (the world's busiest airport) isn't being considered.

IDOT's ultimate goal is to connect a Peotone airport to a vast market of suburbanites via more than 100 miles of as yet unbuilt highways. For now, the only thing concrete about this scenario is the North-South Tollway (Interstate 355), which cuts a 16-mile path through Du Page County. I-355's proposed northern leg (known as the Route 53 extension) would stretch into Lake and McHenry counties. The southern leg would run from Bolingbrook south and east toward the village of Monee, just northeast of the airport site, and then on into Indiana to I-65. In recent months, IDOT has stepped up efforts to promote a 33-mile highway connecting I-88 in Kane County to I-80 in Grundy County by way of Kendall County--the home of U.S. House speaker Dennis Hastert.

IDOT--the state's road and bridge project manager--is a 7,800-employee, $8.2 billion bureaucracy that's looking to expand. Think of Peotone as its diversification strategy. IDOT's tried it before. Several years ago the state spent $330 million to convert an air force base in southern Illinois into a commercial airport. All the major airlines told IDOT the same thing they've been saying about Peotone: we don't need an airport there. But IDOT didn't listen. Claiming its new MidAmerica Airport would supplement Saint Louis's Lambert Field, IDOT projected 2.8 million passengers a year by 2005. Today, MidAmerica remains empty.

Tired of the long delays that ball up air service throughout the country, out-of-state U.S. senators threatened last summer to pass a law overriding the authority enjoyed by Republican Illinois governors to prevent new runways at O'Hare. Mayor Daley then unveiled a $6.6 billion plan to nearly double O'Hare's capacity. In August Governor Ryan announced he would not seek reelection; and once he was a lame duck he had nothing to lose by breaking a promise to O'Hare's outraged neighbors.

On December 5 Daley and Ryan announced their historic plan. O'Hare would expand, Meigs Field would endure, and Daley would join--or at least no longer publicly ridicule--the state's effort to build an "inaugural" airport in Will County. "Our goal was to do something at O'Hare, and we've done that, and to do something about Peotone," the governor said. "He's happy about O'Hare and so am I. I'm happier about Peotone than he is."

The Daley-Ryan deal forced Brown, as Springfield's airport point man, to talk a new game. After all, IDOT's strategy had been premised on the idea that landlocked O'Hare wouldn't be a major factor in handling future air-traffic growth. So now Peotone has become necessary even if reconfiguration increases the annual number of flights O'Hare can handle from the 912,000 of 2001 to 1.6 million by 2022. That's a stopgap improvement, IDOT says.

The one-runway airport that IDOT wants to build from scratch in Peotone would essentially duplicate what now exists in Gary, Indiana. Roughly equidistant from the Loop and Peotone, Gary/Chicago covers almost as much ground as New York's LaGuardia or Washington's Reagan, yet it offers only one daily commercial flight--Pan Am's service to Orlando, Florida. But last November the Federal Aviation Administration approved Gary/Chicago's plan to gradually expand, until in 20 years it's able to handle 50 percent more commercial air passengers than the 13 million that Midway handles today. Midway's capacity is about 15 million passengers.

U.S. Representative William Lipinski, the southwest-side Democrat who protects city airport interests on Capitol Hill, predicts Congress will pass a law this spring to expedite the Daley-Ryan compromise. There's no mechanism to finance new airport construction, Peotone boosters complain. The deal does, however, give IDOT carte blanche to continue its heavy-handed tactics in eastern Will County. In January IDOT sent registered letters to the 117 landowners in the "inaugural" airport footprint, advising them of the state's plan to buy all their land by 2004 and threatening legal action against resisters. Criticized for lowballing landowners with its offers, IDOT has since paid a pricey $47,000 for a single acre located outside the "starter" airport boundaries, $747,000 for 115 acres of farmland, and $280,000 for a five-acre lot with a house inside the airport site. Only 23,879 acres to go.

"King of Clout"--that's what the Sun-Times called William Cellini in a 1996 expose. Cellini was the Springfield political operative whom Governor Richard Ogilvie named IDOT's first director in 1970. "Road construction boomed under Cellini and Ogilvie, but so did allegations of collusion among road builders seeking to cash in on the work," wrote Sun-Times reporters Tim Novak, Chuck Neubauer, and Dave McKinney. "A handful of road builders were convicted in the federal investigation and temporarily suspended from getting any more federally funded highway projects. The investigation included allegations that Cellini's top deputies used department helicopters to swoop down on construction sites to pick up campaign donations for Ogilvie."

In 1972 Ogilvie lost to Dan Walker--Illinois' last Democratic governor--but under Walker, road builders "continued to play the same games," an unnamed Republican official told the Sun-Times. "The key to the asphalt pavers is that they get contracts for their work on a predictable basis. The business continued to flow and the campaign contributions flowed to the Democratic governor, just like the Republican governor."

Walker lost in 1976 to former federal prosecutor James Thompson, who proceeded to win reelection three times. In 1991, when Thompson moved on to corporate law, former secretary of state Jim Edgar became governor, and Kirk Brown, the son and grandson of highway supervisors in downstate Saline County, his IDOT secretary.

Brown took IDOT's helm at the end of an era. Since the 1950s, federal road building had been a driving force in the construction of sprawling suburbs. Hundreds of billions of public and private dollars had been spent on vast networks of sewers and water pipes, of electric lines and telephone lines that served new homes, retail shops, and industries. But by 1990 it was becoming evident that older communities had enough trouble maintaining themselves without also having to subsidize new ones rising from farm fields. In 1991 there was a shift in federal policy. Old transportation law supported transportation between communities. The new law laid the foundation for the more diversified transportation systems--roads, public transit, bike paths, sidewalks--that people needed to travel within communities.

In IDOT's universe, such a radical shift in public policy priorities was unthinkable. In 1991 Springfield's definition of transportation choice meant the choice of concrete or asphalt as a road building material. Wanting to remain friends with both interest groups, the new secretary told the press that IDOT's job is to "give the taxpayers the best road for the least amount of money." That may not be what taxpayers got. A 1998 state audit found that over a 12-month period IDOT had paid a higher average price for road building materials than the transportation departments in six neighboring states. IDOT denounced the audit.

In their 1993 book Illinois for Sale, staffers of Springfield's State Journal-Register wrote: "Giving money to politicians, and getting more money back from them in tax-funded state contracts...is the basis of a complex, unspoken economic system that operates within political campaigns, state agencies, law firms, and corporate board rooms." In fiscal 1992, the Journal-Register staffers showed in Illinois for Sale, IDOT and the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority issued contracts worth a total of $1.187 billion to Edgar campaign contributors. That was more than 20 times the combined dollar value of all the contracts awarded to campaign contributors by the next eight state agencies on the list.

The contracts to build a new airport and the toll roads to get us there would allow the state to express billions of dollars in additional gratitude.

The godfather of Peotone is Aldo DeAngelis, a south suburban businessman and land speculator elected to the state senate in 1978. In 1985 DeAngelis, an Olympia Fields Republican now retired, and Senator Bob Kustra, a Park Ridge Republican who later became Edgar's lieutenant governor, sponsored legislation that effectively created the Peotone pipeline to the state treasury. With a $500,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association began to "study" airport issues.

In 1987 Federal Aviation Administration funding brought together state officials of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. This effort might have produced the kind of political framework and unified strategy that would have attracted the federal resources needed to build a diversified regional transportation system. But such an ambitious task would have required vision. Led by then IDOT secretary Greg Baise, the Chicago Airport Capacity Study's policy committee set out to do no more than determine where to site a great big public works project.

A two-year study concluded that a new airport would be needed by 2000 and belonged in the southern part of the region. Opponents blasted holes in many of the study's assumptions, among them costs and passenger projections. The study's technical committee--which represented regional planning commissions from all three states-- went its own way, concluding that existing airports could handle the demand for air travel for the foreseeable future. But the policy committee--led by Baise, DeAngelis, and then lieutenant governor George Ryan--voted to forge ahead. As soon as Wisconsin got what it wanted--designation of Milwaukee's Mitchell as Chicago's "supplemental" (or third major) airport, which would help it attract federal funds--that state dropped out of the process.

In 1989 the newly formed Illinois-Indiana Regional Airport Study commission hired a consultant to identify the location of the next O'Hare. Four places were originally in the running--the Gary airport, a site straddling the Illinois-Indiana border, Peotone, and Kankakee. Meanwhile, the FAA used all kinds of channels to send the message that no new airport would be built until there was "regional consensus." This meant the city of Chicago--which had stayed out of the discussion throughout the 80s. The Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer administrations refused to participate in negotiations on the grounds that a new airport would siphon business from O'Hare and Midway. After being elected mayor in 1989, Richard M. Daley unveiled a plan to build a new airport at Lake Calumet. As the mayor's press secretary told the Southtown Economist: "It's an idiotic notion to think that something like this is going to be built without the city. There is no game until the city is at the table."

The bistate commission had no choice but to add this fifth site to the list. Chicago was now at the table. With the mayor's brother Bill acting as Chicago's point man, the commission voted seven to four to build the airport at Lake Calumet.

DeAngelis, who abstained, was furious.

But Lake Calumet couldn't happen without authorizing legislation from the General Assembly. This meant that Mayor Daley would have to accept a power-sharing arrangement. In Springfield, the city introduced legislation in 1992 to create a regional airport authority to own and operate ORD, MDW (O'Hare and Midway), and a third major commercial airport dubbed LAC. It was understood that in the long run growth at LAC would cut into MDW's airspace, and that the southwest-side airport would eventually close and be redeveloped. But this didn't sit well with house speaker Mike Madigan, who's from the southwest side, and Republicans weren't enthusiastic either. Cantankerous Pate Philip, then in his last session as senate minority leader before taking control of the senate, was never in a hurry to help Jim Edgar look good. "Imagine a popular sitting governor not able to deliver his own floor leaders on the most important economic development legislation of the decade," says an informed observer of this process. "If the Republicans had approved the regional airport authority, they would have established the principle of regional planning and the legal vehicle for regional airport ownership even if LAC ultimately failed."

The bill died, and then Daley made the surprising announcement that Chicago would forget about Lake Calumet and improve Midway instead. Stunned, Governor Edgar pledged his support for DeAngelis's airport at Peotone.

Privately, Daley was telling visitors that somebody must own a lot of land near Peotone. Even Edgar staffers, when they'd been promoting Lake Calumet, were encouraging reporters to investigate the rumor that politicians were buying farmland around Peotone.

The mayor's arguments for Lake Calumet boosted the idea that a new regional airport had to be built somewhere. But how to get it off the ground? The Clinton administration wasn't about to offer federal funding without Daley's support. Madigan stymied hopes for significant state funding. But in 1994 the GOP won control of the Illinois house. With Lee Daniels of Elmhurst now the house speaker, Pate Philip running the senate, and Jim Edgar governor, assistant senate majority leader DeAngelis saw his opportunity. The best mechanism to finance Peotone figured to be the passenger facility charge--which then was a $3-a-flight tax paid by air passengers each time they used O'Hare or Midway. The city uses PFCs to finance its airport projects, but DeAngelis introduced a bill that would divert a steady stream of this money to Peotone.

One winter day in 1995 I encountered the beaming state senator at a south suburban community forum. DeAngelis stood in a hallway holding court. "What is the purpose of your regional airport authority bill?" I asked. Without a pause, he replied: "We're trying to squeeze Mayor Daley's testicles."

Several weeks later Daley called a special session of the City Council. The council created a bistate authority through which PFCs from O'Hare and Midway would help finance development of the Gary airport. This new legal entity met the federal criteria for an interstate authority, and DeAngelis's intrastate authority would have been powerless to affect it. The mayor's testicles had eluded the Republicans' clutches.

DeAngelis's obsession with Peotone became understandable a year later. Crain's Chicago Business reported that he'd been selling limited real estate partnerships around the Peotone area for nearly a decade. But many of these "partners," including Cook County's Republican Party chairman then and now, Manny Hoffman, had accused DeAngelis of squandering their $2.5 million in investments and taken him to court. The real estate in question included a 115-acre parcel along the northern perimeter of the airport site. This was cheap farmland that would be worth a ton to those investors if--and only if--the airport were built.

Peotone real estate is a thicket of blind trusts--legal instruments that make it virtually impossible to find out who owns what land and when they bought it.

"Everybody's trying to cut the hog in the ass," a northwest Will County village president said in 1994 when I asked why land values were soaring along the route planned for the first leg of the Peotone toll road. Cutting the hog in the ass, he explained, is "a term we real estate lawyers use. It means 'cashing in.'"

The people who inhabit the rolling countryside around Peotone and like it the way it is have banded together into a couple of creatively initialed grassroots groups. Residents United to Retain Agricultural Land staked out the turf, then morphed into Shut This Airport Nightmare Down. First RURAL and then STAND maintained that high-speed rail and the expanded existing airports are the cost-effective and energy-efficient way to go. But those wholesome values don't look like a match for slash-the-hog economics.

I've been an advocate against an I-355 extension and the airport that would supposedly justify it. In the late 1990s I helped the Center for Neighborhood Technology develop the argument that the existing industrial base in the southern part of the Chicago region offered a better engine for growth than a Peotone airport. South Cook County is the cargo hub of North America; there's an intermodal freight network, a wealth of metalworking industries, and thousands of acres of underused "brown fields." This rusting industrial underbelly could be redeveloped in concert with a Gary airport that's already sitting there. But flipping farmland is an easier way to make a buck. The so-called civic and political leaders of south Cook, Will, and Kankakee counties resisted all our recommendations. They recited IDOT statistics--such as 236,000 new jobs--and claimed Peotone was the only way to grow.

In 1999 IDOT funded the Eastern Will County Regional Council to promote "cooperative transportation planning between local agencies and the states of Indiana and Illinois." The council solicited topics for upcoming workshops, and the Will County Farm Bureau--one of few local civic groups to oppose Peotone--formally requested a workshop on the Gary airport. The council refused. Its definition of "bistate transportation strategies" was limited to those helping IDOT to convince Indiana to support an eastern highway into Peotone.

Also in 1999, STAND petitioned local governments to adopt a resolution asking Governor Ryan to work with Indiana's Governor Frank O'Bannon on behalf of the Gary airport. The Peotone village board voted yes. But elsewhere the proposal met resistance that was inexplicable until a village board member in neighboring Monee tried to force the resolution to a vote. The village president convinced him that a pro-Gary resolution would kill Monee's chances of getting a $500,000 state grant for a water tower. Hearing of this incident, Peotone's then village president, Richard Benson, believed he now knew why IDOT was being so slow to carry out a $50,000 stoplight project on the state road through town. Springfield was reserving its largesse for those who toed the IDOT line.

Several of O'Hare's neighbors--Bensenville, Elk Grove Village, Park Ridge, and Wooddale--are pooling $300,000 to hire the retired head of the Better Government Association to look for corruption and patronage in the airport's expansion program. Meanwhile the Suburban O'Hare Commission--a coalition of a dozen O'Hare-area towns that oppose expansion--is laying out its argument in a mailing to local residents and businesses. Don't pour "public resources into a cesspool"--that's a bigger O'Hare. A Peotone airport would cost less and generate more revenues. "Let reason prevail, not political clout."

The small towns in eastern Will County aren't as big, affluent, or assertive. Community activists there argue that airports don't just arrive; they're brought in with the blessing of local governments. But the heads of Beecher, Crete, Monee, University Park, and Peotone--the five towns that dot the outskirts of the proposed airport--have been persuaded that there might be nothing they can do to prevent it. In a closed-door meeting last spring with IDOT officials, area mayors argued that they should at least know how the bill would be footed for roads, water, sewers, and police protection. And they didn't know. But nobody knows.

Beecher village president Paul Lohmann figures there are "billions of dollars of uncalculated costs" beyond the estimated $5.1 billion (in 1994 dollars) a fully constructed airport is supposed to cost. If the neighboring towns are fated to bear those costs, they'd like to share the revenues. Yet IDOT, imitating Chicago when O'Hare was built, intends to keep everything for Springfield. "The state's planning a buffer zone in which they'll have their hands on all the industrial and commercial development," Lohmann says. The airport authority would control all revenues collected in this zone, rather than let the surrounding governments benefit.

IDOT officials have been so busy waging their political fight that they seem to have given no thought to what they'd face if they win it--such as having to bring construction workers to the job site on tar-and-chip country roads without creating chaos in surrounding communities. "These guys haven't put a lot of planning into what they're trying to accomplish," Monee's newly elected village president, Timothy O'Donnell, observes. "Their plan seems to be buy land, throw up an airport in the cornfields, and worry about everything else later. IDOT doesn't seem to have a clue where to get the money except from the feds. I don't see President Bush as the type of person who would spend $600 million on such a half-baked idea."

Peotone's current village president, Dennis Baran, says: "You ask about high-speed rail and highway access and IDOT says, 'We've evaluated that.' You ask, 'What did you find?' They say, nothing. This whole project has been underevaluated. Expectations for the Peotone airport are so unrealistic. People seem to think it's going to bring peace to Bensenville and prosperity to Harvey. But IDOT officials have their story and they're sticking to it."

Apparently IDOT doesn't do multimodal transportation systems. Illinois FIRST--the governor's $12 billion infrastructure program--mainly improves roads, to the tune of more than $2 billion a year through at least 2003. Ryan's top priority was to fix the Hillside Strangler, a west suburban bottleneck IDOT reconfigured for $139 million. It existed in the first place thanks to politicians who made deals with no regard for consequences. In 1955 Democrats refused to support the creation of a tollway commission until Governor William Stratton agreed to a Cook County highway revenue bond. The Republicans wound up building suburban toll roads while the Democrats built urban expressways, and nobody gave much thought to how the two systems would intersect. The Strangler was but the worst of the crowded junction points.

In the 1950s, nobody could have known how crowded suburban Chicago would become. But IDOT spokesman Richard Adorjan, a 30-year IDOT employee, promises that Peotone will be different. He contends that today's sophisticated planning tools enable governments to anticipate regional aviation needs that lie 30, 40, or 50 years in the future.

For a reality check, I called Carol Henrichs, an eastern Will County resident whose fight against Peotone dates back to the 80s. She was a reporter for Kankakee's Daily Journal when DeAngelis, during his 1988 reelection campaign, told her where the new airport should be built. Today, she's editor of the weekly Peotone Vedette and she operates a Web site, www.homestead.com/rural01, on which she posts documents supporting her claim that "the third airport will never stand on its own merit."

Henrichs explains, "Boosters call this the most 'studied' airport project in America. The word 'study' intimates an investigation into factual learning. It is more accurate to say that reports have been written and rewritten--massaged until they at least meet minimal federal requirements. Since the first dollar was spent, IDOT's effort was skewed toward building an airport near the Peotone site. IDOT gained its desired results by manipulating the entire study process. From day one, airport boosters have been building their case on a cracked foundation."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tony Maine.

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