Monday, January 16, 2012

Critics say Peotone destined to be Illinois' second MidAmerica

SPRINGFIELD — Evidence of a downturn in the aviation industry is visible in every corner of Illinois, but that isn’t slowing Gov. Pat Quinn and state transportation officials from moving “as fast as humanely possible” to build a third airport near Chicago.

Over the past five years, the state has seen a more than 10 percent drop in the number of people flying in and out of the state’s nine main airports.

In recent months, American Airlines — a key air carrier in Chicago and downstate — joined its counterparts in bankruptcy.

Southwest Airlines announced it was pulling flights by its newest acquisition —AirTran — out of the Quad-City International Airport in Moline and the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington.

And airports from Marion to Decatur have seen passenger air service flounder.

But even with those red flags flying in the aviation world, efforts to build the controversial South Suburban Airport at Peotone are moving forward.

Supporters, including Quinn, Will County officials and members of Congress from the area say the project will create jobs and serve as a relief valve for additional growth at O’Hare International Airport and its smaller Chicago counterpart, Midway.

Critics say the Peotone push is likely to turn into an expensive boondoggle mirroring the mostly unused MidAmerica Airport in St. Clair County.

“Today I want to reaffirm my commitment to build a third airport at Peotone as fast as humanly possible,” the governor told lawmakers in his annual budget speech.

The state has already spent $33 million to buy land for the Will County facility. Quinn wants to spend another $110 million for land acquisition. Millions more will be needed to build and equip the facility.

“We firmly believe the South Suburban Airport will benefit the people of Illinois and provide … much-needed infrastructure, jobs and potential for economic growth,” Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell noted in a recent email.

Analysts scoff at that assessment.

“You’ve already got one major fiasco called MidAmerica. Don’t do it again,” warns Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant who has been sounding the warning bells about Peotone since the late 1990s.

With Quinn’s backing, the south suburban airport recently took a step forward in the federal approval process, receiving a green light from the Federal Aviation Administration for its Existing Conditions Report, which identifies the area’s population, employment trends and existing transportation, while accounting for impacts to schools, churches and parks.

IDOT is working along three different tracks as it attempts to shepherd the airport through the approval process. Along with acquiring land, Tridgell said the state is working on an airport master plan and an environmental impact survey.

But for all of the positive news coming from IDOT about the project, there remains no guarantee the project in Peotone won’t become Illinois’ second MidAmerica. An audit of MidAmerica showed the facility had an operating loss of nearly $12 million in 2010.

On its website, MidAmerica officials acknowledge their own problem with a note saying no passenger service is available at the facility.

“MidAmerica is a monument to dishonest planning,” Boyd said.

Meanwhile, the loss of AirTran in Bloomington represents a blow to what was once one of the fastest growing regional airports in the nation. Officials say the airport will lose about 40 percent of its traffic once its No. 2 carrier leaves town.

But, the Bloomington facility is not the first downstate airport to face the loss of a major carrier.

AirTran also pulled out of the Quad-City International Airport. Local officials hope the addition of Allegient Airlines will take up some of the slack.

State and federal subsidies have also done little to keep air carriers in Marion, Decatur and Springfield. A $1 million experiment launched in 2008 to link three downstate airports with Midway in Chicago lasted just six months.

For now, there is no target date for opening an airport in Peotone.

“We continue to diligently work with the FAA, along with state, regional and local leaders, to advance the project as quickly as possible,” Tridgell said.

Boyd, however, says the project is being fueled more by politics than need.

Said Boyd, “It’s a solution looking for a problem. It’s a political project.”

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