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Would the Proposed Third Airport be an Economic Engine or a Sprawl Generator?

O’Hare (blue), Midway (orange), Peotone (purple), and the new proposed airport site in Monee (green.) Image: Google Maps

The Chicago region is blessed with two airports that are both a cheap, easy train ride from the Loop. But now there’s a renewed call to build a third airport in south-suburban Monee, Illinois, 37 miles south of downtown Chicago and a 17-minute drive from the nearest Metra station in University Park. It raises the question, would building a new airport in a location with no existing rail transit access induce more driving and suburban sprawl?

Before we tackle that issue, let’s take a look at what’s going on with the airport proposal. As reported by the Daily Southtown’s Ted Slowik, on April 26 over 50 local leaders sent a letter to Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker supporting the South Suburban Airport proposal. They argued that the new facility would be a shot in the arm for the regional economy. Recently, some Southland state representatives have suggested that they might withhold support for Pritzker’s plan for a graduated state income tax unless the governor endorses the airport.

In the letter, the south-suburban leaders asked the state of Illinois to chip in $150 million for improvements associated with the airport, such as a new interchange on I-57, local road construction and improvements to utilities, Slowik reported. The letter argued that, even if the airport doesn’t happen, the infrastructure work is needed. The correspondence was signed by U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson; U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush and Danny Davis of Chicago, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, 15 other state legislators, 29 south-suburban mayors, two Cook County Board commissioners, and four Chicago aldermen.

“While the (Federal Aviation Administration) says Chicago needs a third airport for national capacity concerns, Illinois needs it for the inevitable economic benefits,” the letter states. It asserts that companies that transport products, such as Amazon, would use the new airport.

Years ago, the third airport proposal focused on Peotone, Illinois, a town of about 4,000 people located even farther from downtown Chicago and Metra service. However, the new facility is currently proposed on the site of Bult Field, a small airstrip that’s currently in service, located at 28261 S. Kedzie Ave. in Monee, Slowik reported. The state of Illinois purchased the airport for $34 million five years ago. The state already owns 4,250 acres of the 5,800 needed to establish the new, much larger airport, and it currently rents out the land for farming.

Aerial view of Bult Field.
Aerial view of Bult Field.
Aerial view of Bult Field.

The proposal calls for working with a private developer who would invest some $450 for the project. The airport would include a roughly two-mile-long runway, a control tower, a cargo facility, and a passenger terminal.

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is not enthusiastic about the proposal, noting that a major expansion of O’Hare Airport is already underway. Some south-suburban residents and farmers are also opposed.

But what do transportation advocates and experts have to say about it?

“Will Elon Musk build a tunnel to it?” joked Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke. Seriously though, he said that “absent a comprehensive plan to ensure the inevitable growth around a Peotone airport is walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly -- rather than the car-centric status-quo with a new layer of suburban sprawl – Active Trans is opposed.”

DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman was more optimistic about the airport scheme. "The continuing economic woes of the South Suburbs, and the likely cargo focus of the airport, has taken the edge off of concerns about a [third airport] pushing development out into prime agricultural areas," he said.

"If the airport's proposed role changes, and it is suddenly envisioned as a major passenger facility, concerns about urban sprawl will certainly heat up,” Schwieterman acknowledged. “But as the airport is presently conceived, with its limited size, the environment issues surrounding its construction are not likely to be as controversial".

"Let's face it, the city of Chicago has won the battle over which airports will handle the region's passenger traffic,” Schwieterman concluded. “A [third] airport poses little threat to that. It is seen primarily as an airport primarily supporting the industrial supply chain centering on expressways radiating from the far south parts of our region."

What’s your opinion – would the new airport serve as a new economic engine for the region, or just a sprawl generator? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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