UNIVERSITY PARK, Ill. (AP) - After decades of dispute, the possibility of a
third airport in the Chicago area finally materialized Thursday as Gov. Pat
Quinn signed a wide-ranging bill that’ll put state transportation officials
in charge of the hub and allow them to spend $71 million on land.
Hopeful talk of a south suburban airport has dominated this economically
struggling area since the 1970s and spanned the careers of numerous
politicians, including former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. But movement was
stalled by fights over local control, revenue and environmental impact, as
well as whether it was necessary, given the metropolitan area is already
served by two major airports.
Quinn and other lawmakers touted the project Thursday as an economic starter
for the area south of Chicago, estimated to create 14,000 jobs when it’s
functional. The bill Quinn signed was also jam-packed with unrelated
projects, including allowing local entities to set up financing for a new
10,000-seat DePaul University sports arena near Lake Michigan and offering
tax credits for fertilizer plants.
The focus of Thursday’s bravado, though, was the airport.
“When we have strong transportation ... that is a key way of growing your
economy and helping this particular region,” Quinn said at Governors State
University, not far from the proposed site. “This doesn’t come easy.”
The state has already spent about $40 million to acquire land for the
project in an unincorporated stretch surrounded by several suburbs,
including Peotone. The bill lets the Illinois Department of Transportation
run the project, which will eventually be a public-private partnership.
The airport that is expected to be a largely cargo hub and offer passenger
service. Transportation officials have submitted a master plan to the
Federal Aviation Administration, though no construction timeline was
Over the years, perhaps no public official brought more attention to the
possible airport than Jackson, who considered it a pet project over his 17
years in office. But there was no mention of him or the long tensions over
the airport. Jackson, a Chicago Democrat, resigned last year and is awaiting
sentencing on federal charges that he misspent campaign funds.
Even those who did not like Jackson’s approach to the project - also a
private-public partnership - agreed that he kept the issue in the headlines,
at least initially. In later years of his tenure, members of his staff
suggested he may have hindered progress.
Jackson held a symbolic ground breaking at the site last year though local
officials remained opposed to the one-terminal, one-runway project.
“Former Congressman Jackson did nothing more than stall the airport for more
than a decade,” said former Will County Board member Cory Singer, a
Republican who focused on the airport during 10 years in office. “It never
was going to happen. For a decade it was nothing but a political battle.”
Jackson’s longtime aide - Rick Bryant - did attend the bill signing but in
the capacity of his new job - senior adviser to U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, who
was chosen to replace Jackson in April’s special election. He did not give a
speech and largely declined to comment.
“It’s a transformational project,” he said. “It’s the biggest thing to
happen in the south suburbs, perhaps ever.”
Will County Executive Larry Walsh Sr. applauded Quinn and development in the
region, but he didn’t enthusiastically praise the project, saying the “giant
step” forward would bring closure to years of debate and finally answer
questions about the need for the airport.
Before the plan hit Quinn’s desk, the proposal wasn’t free from criticism.
It was introduced at the tail end of the spring legislative session and
crammed with unrelated projects, something legislators at the time deemed a
“Christmas tree bill.”
Also, it was ill-timed for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who backed the DePaul
project as a way to develop the city’s waterfront. City council members and
the Chicago Teachers Union blasted him for pushing forward with development
of a private university as he was pushing to close public schools because of
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, an Olympia Fields Democrat and one of the bill
sponsors, dismissed those concerns about the timing and the combination of
“They’re related under the term economic development,” she said in an
interview. “When you combine that we how hard we’ve been hit with
foreclosures, the best way to get people to people back to work as soon as
possible is to invest in our infrastructure.
DePaul, a Roman Catholic college, is located on the city’s North Side, but
the basketball team plays at the Allstate Arena in the northern suburb of
Rosemont. The proposal would authorize financing to build the complex along
Lake Michigan near McCormick Place convention center.