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‘An Airport to Nowhere’

While skyrocketing oil prices and a growing airline industry crisis steadily overwhelm prospects for an airport in Peotone, local opponents of the megaproject are planning a community cleanup on Saturday to remove trash and debris from IDOT’s demolition of farmhouses in the proposed airport’s footprint.

“We’re cleaning up the toe jam in the footprint,” said Anthony Rayson of Shut This Airport Nightmare Down.

They’ll meet Saturday, June 14 at 10 a.m. at the corner of Egyptian Trail and Eagle Lake Road, opposite a farmhouse taken over by IDOT (now fenced in with barbed wire and under 24-hour guard).

Will Township is providing a pickup truck and dumpster and a STAND member is bringing a frontloader. “IDOT bulldozed the farmhouses and barns that they acquired and it left a lot of wood and debris,” said Rayson. “There was insulation blowing through the fields.” And people who think the area is abandoned have begun dumping garbage there, he said.

“Parts of the area look very blighted,” said George Ochsenfeld of STAND.

Local Cub Scouts have been invited to conduct a flag ceremony. “On Flag Day we’ll demonstrate what real citizens do — work together and help each other,” said Rayson. “Not destroy the community, like the government wants to do.”

Airport project ‘dead’

They’ll also take the opportunity to “raise the issue of this endless land grab and waste of taxpayer money,” Rayson said. “No Airport” signs are being constructed for distribution Saturday. Rayson calls it “an airport to nowhere.”

The Peotone airport “was already on life support” but the airline industry crisis “kills it entirely,” said Ochsenfeld. “It’s dead — though no elected official wants to admit it — but it will always be a ghost haunting property owners here. The threat of an airport depresses property values and stresses people out.”

The biggest obstacle to the project all along was total lack of support from airlines. A point-to-point airport as proposed has no place in a hub-and-spoke air travel system, Ochsenfeld said.

Political disputes over control of the airport authority erupted again this week when U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. charged that political operator Antoin Rezko represented Governor Blagojevich in a meeting on proposed legislation in June 2006.

The state announced it was submitting a runway plan to the FAA in March, but certification could take years. If federal funds are involved, an environmental impact study will be required, including consideration of alternatives.

IDOT also initiated a new round of land acquisition in the 5,225 acre “starter airport” footprint. Almost 40 percent of that area has been acquired to date, according to reports.

The Peotone Airport was originally proposed to have six runways and cover 20,000 acres — over three times the size of O’Hare. A smaller “starter” effort was launched after the O’Hare expansion was approved. But it was only a $75 million appropriation for “land banking” in Gov. George Ryan’s Illinois FIRST program which got things rolling.

Driven by politics

“The project was always politically driven, not market driven,” said Ochsenfeld.

“It’s a pipe dream of south suburban politicians who are jealous of O’Hare and the Tollway and want their own money-making, job-dealing proposition,” said Rayson.

Millions of dollars already spent by the state on consultants and lawyers have made the project a “lucrative cottage industry” for political insiders, said Rayson. “Taxpayer money should be used for projects that benefit citizens – not to line the pockets of the politically connected,” he said.

Will County’s existing roads and bridges could certainly use the money, he said.

While Illinois and Will County face severe budget shortfalls, oil prices have quintupled in the last five years — and pressure on prices will only increase.

“Even if oil drops back to $80 a barrel, there’s still China and India and the whole issue of peak oil,” said Ochsenfeld. “It’s going to have a devastating impact on air travel.”

It will also increase the cost of a cab ride from Peotone to Chicago, which is currently $130. It will dramatically increase the cost of airport and highway construction. And it will make less feasible “sprawl” development which a new airport would promote.

STAND members point to Gary’s airport. “It’s all set to go, it just got a new runway, it’s got the infrastructure, expressways, trains, and it’s a half hour from Chicago,” said Rayson.

Under a cloud

Meanwhile, everyone in the 20,000-acre target area “are under a cloud for the next 100 years,” said Ochsendfeld. “The can’t sell their property for what it’s worth.” He’s convinced the pressure has led to a number of premature deaths and divorces. “There’s so much stress, and one person wants to leave, one person wants to stay.”

The area is home to many four- and five-generation family farms. One STAND member, now 65, was born in the house he lives in — as was his father and grandfather. His great-grandfather built the house. In many families, the next generation is now reluctant to take over the farm, Rayson said.

“It’s excellent soil for crops,” he said. “Farming is a viable industry out here. We’ve got a lot of corn and soybeans, a lot of excellent produce, poultry and beef.”

It’s the last section of undeveloped land within an hour of Chicago, he said. (And with oil prices driving up food prices, it might make sense to keep some farmland nearby.)

“It’s beautiful rolling hills, farmland, wetlands, woods, pristine creeks,” he said. To build an airport, bulldozers will be needed to flatten those hills and fill in those wetlands, after the barns and farmhouses are demolished and the trees are cut down.

Ochsenfeld sees parallels with MidAmerica Airport in downstate St. Clair County. Opened in 1997, MidAmerica Airport has never attracted a major airline and never turned a profit. Its passenger facilities, designed to handle a million passengers a year, handle a few thousand, flying to Orlando and Las Vegas on Allegiant Airline. Attempts to attract cargo traffic are mired in lawsuits. The $300 million airport costs the county at least $4 million a year.

But “all the developers and contractors and consultants got paid,” said Ochsenfeld.

Just this week supervisors from three townships in the airport footprint called on the Illinois General Assembly to “commission an independent study that considers all local infrastructure costs, as well as actual and projected revenue losses that would result from IDOT’s plans to remove up to 35 square miles of eastern Will County real estate from the tax rolls.

“The study should evaluate airport-related costs and benefits based on various scenarios, including an assumption that a Peotone airport would attract no daily commercial passenger service for many years, if ever,” said Patti Schoenbeck of Monee, Brian Cann of Peotone, and Bob Howard of Beecher.

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Category: transportation, Will County

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