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
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.

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.

  • Anne A

    If it’s built as a freight hub, it’s more likely to be a positive development. If they design it for passenger use, it’s a sprawl generator, for sure. A big thumbs down on the sprawl generator.

  • planetshwoop

    Living over the flight path of O’Hare, I’d be happy to share some of the noise with some others in the region.

    If it’ a cargo hub, it would make sense to woo a logistics company to partner with them like Memphis and Louisville have.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    I want a BRT line utilizing the grade separated ROW just east of Cicero that connects Midway to the Montrose Blue Line(Ohare). Can Elon Musk or Pritzker build that? Initially, the Orange Line was supposed to go to Ford City(79th). Nowadays, the built environment of South Cicero Avenue leaves a lot to be desired. Ideally, the Orange Line travels south along Cicero to a Metra transfer at Oak Lawn. Why aren’t pols talking about UGB (Urban Growth Boundary) and Congestion Pricing?

  • outerloop

    Is the Rockford airport still doing a lot of Chicago’s air freight business?

  • Tooscrapps

    Looking at this regionally, doesn’t Gary Int’l already have a 1 2/3 mile runway, plus a nearby interchange? If this South Chicagoland airport is to relieve cargo pressure, it shouldn’t matter if that traffic goes to Indiana right?

    $150M would be better spent elsewhere, like on rail improvements or small business funding.

    Crains had a good article on this: https://www.chicagobusiness.com/joe-cahill-business/why-airport-peotone-still-unlikely-fly

  • Eric Pounder

    Agreed. I don’t see how landing your cargo a 30 minute drive from Route 80 is a good business decision. Have any of the signatories heard that a freight company wants to build in the middle of nowhere? As a native Park Forest-onian(?), Monee is a long way out.

  • Jeremy

    A lot of cannabis could be grown on 5,800 acres. Hydroponics facilities wouldn’t cost as much to build as an airport. Politicians have no imagination.

  • Austin Busch

    Assuming it’s not a fully automated facility, even a cargo airport will induce sprawl. There will need to be a large amount of airport personnel, and likely workers for a new warehouse district that will spring up around it. It’s not as much sprawl as a passenger-focused terminal, but it will still lead to significant growth in a far-flung transit desert.

  • Anne A

    Cicero south of Midway is a disaster. An orange line extension could potentially do a lot to relieve congestion there.

  • kastigar

    A far south third airport for freight and not passengers might be acceptable. This would free up O’Hare and Midway for passenger service, reduce the noise in the neighborhoods close to these airports.

  • Kevin M

    This is an old, short-term-focused view being supported by old, short-term-focused politicians who have been in power for far too long. The world does not need a new airport. What the world needs now is a steady decrease in air travel/shipping. Who the funk cares about economic revival of any depressed area of the country when the world is facing rising sea levels and mass extinction of species? Wake up to that cold reality: the economy is not the Trump card in all matters involving planning. However, here’s the BONUS: The economy can be boosted with plans/investments that also address climate change. Wow! Consider that possibility for a moment.

  • planetshwoop

    No, Rahm worked to get most of it to O’Hare. That’s one of the reasons for increased noise complaints on the NW side.

  • Marble Rye

    South suburbanites, Downstaters and Indiana residents, are already driving to O’Hare and Midway, so a South suburban airport would potentially reduce overall miles driven

  • ChicagoCyclist

    All (large, infrastructure-intensive) development in the outer parts of the metro region constitute “sprawl.” Even if a part of, say, downtown Peotone (whatever that means) is “walkable/bike-able,” it is still nonetheless, from the regional perspective, “sprawl.”

  • JacobEPeters

    Which might not be horrible considering the need for logistics facilities at the periphery of the region & proximity to Joliet, but it still would probably gobble up thousands of acres of farmland around Monee, Manhattan, & University Park

  • Tooscrapps

    I can see some using the increased traffic and cargo that this type of airport would bring as a pretense to revive the Illiana.

  • rwy

    Aviation emits a large amount of greenhouse gases. If we built another airport, wouldn’t that mean more fights emitting more greenhouse gases?

  • 1976boy

    Even if it is meant to be a freight airport, why is there no discussion of integrating it into the freight railway system rather than only to the highway system? There might be a huge opportunity here to divert cargo away from trucks; build a distribution hub for freight rail to the new airport, create more jobs, and avoid the inevitable traffic and sprawl that comes with traditional road-based thinking.

  • Tooscrapps

    Cargo moved by air are small/high value and trucks are the first and last mile. These are not things you move by rail.

  • 1976boy

    So then, traffic and sprawl are the only option. Got it.

  • Tooscrapps

    No. The option is you don’t build or instead utilize existing facilities. I’m just saying that an expensive heavy rail connection makes no sense in this instance.

  • planetshwoop

    The Gary airport is really too small for many planes. Its location next to the highway means it can’t expand.

    Unfortunately it’s not really an option for freight.

  • Tooscrapps

    8,859ft is right about the length needed for a 767-300, which Prime Air flies.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    Illinois is searching for a new location for deportation flights, as they know that the Cook Co. airports would totally not be cool with that. Will Co. on the other hand? Guess where the detention facilities will be built? Not Cook. This airport will support: sprawl, fossil fuels, any yes “cargo” which these days can mean anything from an i phone to a mom and kids. This is clearly a bad deal.

  • decisivemoment

    The economic development driver will be better connectivity with existing infrastructure. The Central Station project, if it happens, will be an opportunity finally to connect Metra Electric to north side commuter routes and a fast cross-city connection. How about reviving the Mid-City transitway while we’re at it so south siders have better access to Midway, O’Hare, Elk Grove Village and possibly even Schaumburg-area jobs?

  • onehandtyping

    Will County is home to the largest inland port in North America. The logistics companies, warehouses, etc. are already there.

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