On the campaign trail and before losing the governor’s race, Pat Quinn championed a pair of big public works plans: A long-debated south suburban Chicago airport and a nearby 47-mile tollway that stretches into Northwest Indiana.
Critics call both projects “boondoggles” and dismissed them as Quinn’s vote-getting ploys. Now that governor-elect Bruce Rauner takes office in January, will either the road or the airport have a chance of being built?
Right now, if there is a race between the projects, the edge goes to the road plan dubbed Illiana over the decades-old idea for an airport in and around the Will County village of Peotone—although both are handicapped by strong opposition and there’s no guarantee that either will ever cross the finish line and be completed.
Rauner, a Republican who takes office in January, is vague about his position. He considers the Illiana an important economic development catalyst for Will County but questions the cost to taxpayers, a spokesman said. As for Peotone, any new airport “must have enough demand to be self-sustaining and not reduce economic activity at other airports in the region,” a Rauner statement said. So far, there isn’t demand from airlines or cargo carriers for Peotone and the impact on O’Hare and Midway airports remains a criticism.
“He has the authority to shelve (Illiana) – he doesn’t have to ask anyone,” said Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As for Peotone, Rauner “can say ‘we’ve done our best but we’re not getting any interest yet.’”
There will be political pressure for killing or moving forward on either project, Schlickman said. But the Illiana project is moving so rapidly that Rauner will need to make a relatively quick decision on whether to proceed, he said. Considering the state’s backlog of needed infrastructure projects, scarce government dollars and lack of demand for an airport, neither project makes sense in the near term, he adds.
Both Illiana and Peotone were championed by Quinn, a Democrat, as he sought re-election, and roots of each plan can be traced to an important part of Quinn’s political base.
Once a proponent of Illinois-Indiana toll road, Chicago real estate executive now says proposed route is wrong, not worth the expense.
After years of fighting for a proposed airport south of Chicago, Will County politicians more than five years ago began pushing for another major transportation project already being considered by Indiana – an east-west expressway that stretches from Interstate 55, mostly through Will County, connecting to Interstate 65 in Lake County, Indiana.
In contrast to the stalemate over Peotone, some selling points made the proposed road politically appealing. The pitch: truck traffic was causing serious congestion on Interstate 80 and the area’s fast-growing transportation and logistics operations would greatly benefit from a new highway. The tollway potentially would create thousands of new jobs (13,000 for construction and 26,000 long term, according to Quinn).
Farmers in the path of the Illiana protest the road plan. / Photo by Brett Chase
“It’s not just a local road project,” said John Greuling, CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development and an early Illiana booster. The road would serve as an important regional freight corridor, he added.
To sweeten the deal: Backers proposed that a private investor would help fund and operate the road while collecting revenue from tolls. The model potentially brings hundreds of millions of dollars of private money into the state for a public works initiative, supporters said. (At least one study says the state isn’t using realistic cost estimates for the more than $1 billion tollway.)
In a relatively short period of time, the proposal gained the backing of a powerful union, key business leaders, area politicians and pastors from distressed south Cook County suburbs. By mid-2010, Quinn signed into law a measure that allows the state to enter into a partnership with a private company that would build and operate Illiana. Such a deal would be the first of its kind in Illinois.
Quinn led the charge on Illiana, exciting union members and African-American voters in South Cook County who see jobs on the way. The governor touted it as one of his top economic development plans even if some of the road’s original movers and shakers – including real estate executive Paul Fisher and former U.S. Representative Debbie Halvorson – now distance themselves from the project because they say Illinois officials botched the expressway’s proposed location.
“It’s not going to do what it’s supposed to do,” said Halvorson, referring to the projected reduction of traffic on Interstate 80 and the improved movement of freight through the area.
Paul S. Fisher / CenterPoint Properties
Halvorson and Fisher were early proponents of the Illiana but now both say the route ended up being placed too far south to effectively accomplish its goal: reduce heavy traffic on Interstate 80 and truly benefit the area’s truck-to-train freight operations in Will County. As former CEO of Will County intermodal operator CenterPoint, Fisher said the road does little to enhance freight movement.
Nonetheless, Will County boosters forged ahead touting the road as a job-creating engine. International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, which represents road construction workers, pushed not only the project but also the private financing.
The union, a vocal backer of the road plan, was also one of Quinn’s biggest political campaign contributors in this past election.
Like Illiana, there were similar economic claims made during the long fight over the Peotone airport. The idea of a private operator for the airport surfaced years ago. The airport continues to be a difficult sell as no airline or cargo carrier is stepping forward to support the idea. In fact, three major airlines, United, American and Southwest, spent years fighting the Peotone plan.
Illiana’s movement through the political and regulatory process hasn’t been easy. Quinn pushed Illiana despite fierce opposition from affected residents and farmers, environmental groups, Cook County politicians and the leadership of a key regional infrastructure planning organization. Thousands of acres of farmland will be destroyed and the project will have residual effects on nearby prairie land and wildlife, environmental groups say. The project spurred two lawsuits from conservation and environmental groups.
Chicago-area political and civic opponents say Illiana carries great financial risk, robs more worthy infrastructure projects of scarce government dollars and fails to dramatically relieve congestion for the region.
They also dispute job creation claims.
The speed at which the initiative moved forward – particularly compared with a Peotone airport – is noteworthy. After a highly contentious process, the policy committee of a regional infrastructure-planning group, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, included the Illiana on a priority list for federal approval.
Federal highway officials are expected to make a decision on Illiana approval by the end of the year. (The actions of the regional agency, known as CMAP, are at the core of one lawsuit brought by environmental groups.)
CMAP’s policy committee, which includes representatives from Cook and the collar counties as well as transportation agencies like Metra and Pace, approved Illiana’s placement on the high-priority list even after the planning agency’s staff wrote a scathing critique of the road plan in 2013.
The project poses a financial risk because the tollway’s viability isn’t certain, the state’s revenue estimates seemed overly optimistic, economic development potential isn’t substantiated and the road would provide limited improvement in traffic congestion, the staff wrote.
…the Illiana project is moving so rapidly that Rauner will need to make a relatively quick decision on whether to proceed…
Much of the risk involved with Illiana depends on the deal the state can negotiate with a private investor – if the project is allowed to go forward. The negotiation is what Rauner references when he says: “We must make sure that any potential public-private partnership deal doesn’t leave taxpayers holding the bag if revenue projections don’t meet their goals.”
“The rubber hits the road on Illiana when they go out to bid,” Will County’s Greuling said. If investors balk because the road doesn’t make sense, he adds, the plan “either gets modified or it won’t be built.”
While the Illiana, as of late, seems to have far more detractors than supporters, state transportation officials say the road is a valid and necessary infrastructure improvement that will have “tremendous travel benefits for the region.”
“The Illiana will serve as a strong trucking corridor, allowing trucks to bypass the congested Chicago metropolitan area and alleviating congestion on the local road network,” an Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman said. Acknowledging the transition to a Rauner administration, he added: “The ongoing planning efforts on all of our projects are continuing and we anticipate sharing information about them during the transition process.”
Some Illiana backers see the tollway as a complementary plan that would actually help build a case for the airport’s construction some day.
That’s the way state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, sees it.
She said the road project is a piece of an economic strategy for the southern suburbs of Chicago that also includes the airport.
She sponsored legislation that was signed into law in 2010 allowing for a private investor to build Illiana. She sponsored similar legislation, signed into law last year, that allowed for a private operator to build the Peotone airport.
Illiana, Peotone Area Residents Sound Off
Larry Readman, a fourth generation farmer near Wilmington, Illinois, doesn’t understand why the proposed Illiana expressway needs to cut through his property, prime farmland that has been in his family for more than 80 years.
Even worse, the road will come too close to the Kankakee River, potentially polluting a source of water and recreation for Wilmington and surrounding communities, he said.
“We see no good in it,” Readman said.
Theresa Alexander of Dolton, on the other hand, sees the tollway idea (and a long-debated airport plan in Will County) as an economic lifeline to the south suburbs where unemployment and poverty rates are high. As an administrative assistant for a cemetery, Alexander describes herself as underemployed. Since being laid off a decade ago, she hasn’t been able to find a full-time job that matches her more than $60,000 a year former position as a computer systems manager.
Alexander, 52, said she hopes to participate in job training next year through an organization called the South Suburban Action Conference. The group works with local churches, including Alexander’s in Phoenix, and recently is focused on construction and transportation job training through a campaign called 100 Ready Workers.
Readman and Alexander represent opposing views of a big public works project touted by outgoing Governor Pat Quinn as a much-needed economic development engine for the south suburbs.
Governor-elect Bruce Rauner will need to decide soon whether the road project goes forward.
Opponents say they aren’t against jobs, but they don’t see a compelling rationale for the road or the airport.
Quinn moved forward this year with land acquisitions to help build the airport, including the $34 million purchase of a small private airfield Bult Field and surrounding land. Though it’s hardly the major international airport once envisioned, the state of Illinois can say it now operates an airport in Will County.
Bult is touted by the state as the future home of something much bigger – the south suburban airport. The airfield purchase is the largest land acquisition to date for the Peotone plan. In total, the state has spent about $87 million, mostly under Quinn, to acquire almost 4,000 acres for the airport.
The tab on the road project is climbing, too. Consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff collected almost $50 million over the past two years for planning and consultation on Illiana, records obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act show.
There are still nagging questions about who would actually use the airport.
The south suburban airport concept was fought by two of the largest U.S. airlines, United and American. Both airlines have major hubs at O’Hare Airport and each one voiced concern about having to pay for competition. Southwest, the dominant carrier at Midway Airport, has similar concerns about Peotone.
With recent expansions of O’Hare and Midway, there is no need for another airport, they say.
Despite the criticism of Illiana, that project doesn’t face some of the daunting challenges that arose for Peotone.
For one, Peotone suffered from a tug or war over who would build the airport, a battle that pitted Will County officials against former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who is now in prison. With Quinn’s leadership, the state is now clearly in charge of the airport plan but it needs a private investor under current plans.
Illiana also isn’t subject to the fierce industry opposition that the airport weathered over the years. United, American and Southwest airlines lobbied hard against the Peotone airport.
While the airlines are taking a break from fighting, they say they’re only doing so because they don’t see a plan moving forward. They’re still very much opposed to the idea.
“We don’t see a need. We can’t support it and we won’t pay for it,” a United spokeswoman said. “A third airport would divert financial resources from O’Hare and Midway.”
American and Southwest airlines’ representatives gave similar statements. A Delta Air Lines spokesman said the carrier has no public position on Peotone, because Chicago isn’t a major market for the airline.
Major U.S. cargo carriers aren’t stepping up to support a third airport. UPS, for instance, indicated the company is doing fine with a cargo hub at Rockford International Airport and with an operation at O’Hare.
“We’ve had discussions about the Peotone project in the past but we feel well served in the Chicago area with our regional hub in Rockford and our O’Hare gateway,” a spokesman said.
A FedEx spokeswoman said the company didn’t want to speculate on the need for a new airport.
Peotone still has its staunch supporters. But proponents acknowledge that they needed to step back and support another potentially big project that would bring jobs to the area even sooner.
“It’s not the Illiana alone,” Hutchinson said. “It’s not the airport alone. It’s not the intermodal alone. They’re all pieces of a bigger picture.”
“We hear about the need to prioritize” infrastructure projects, Hutchinson said. “Southlanders have been hearing this for 50 years.”