Saturday, March 19, 2011

Why are we still arguing about another area airport all these decades later?

It seems that former Rep. (and state legislator) Debbie Halvorson of Crete (in the suburbs, not in Greece) is going to have a political fight on her hands if officials persist with plans to make her the new head of the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Is this sign as improbable as a Cubs' World Series title?

Current Transportation boss Gary Hannig wants to retire, although he has agreed to stay on until the end of the Legislature’s session (May 31) so as to give Gov. Pat Quinn some time to pick a replacement.

THE REPORTS ARE indicating that Halvorson – who was among the Democratic congressmen who got dumped by rural-oriented Republicans in last year’s off-beat election cycle – is a favorite to get the new position, which is one of the more prominent posts in Illinois state government.

Yet just as soon as the reports started indicating that Halvorson could get the job, and that Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., is among her backers, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that she has an outspoken opponent.

Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., doesn’t want her anywhere near the post. Unlike many political people who let their opinions become known in the most veiled of ways, Jackson came right out and trashed her, saying in a statement that she is, “not qualified to be the secretary” and is, “no transportation expert.”

What this fight is about is the prospects of building a new airport for the Chicago area on farmland the state has been buying in recent years just north of Peotone. Jackson is one of the few Chicago-based political people who actually cares about this issue, which he sees solely as a creator of jobs – many of which would wind up being filled by the people who live in his Far South Side and surrounding suburbs congressional district.

JACKSON: Holding a grudge?
HALVORSON, WHEN SHE was the member of Congress whose district actually included the proposed airport site, didn’t do anything to advance Jackson’s desires for the project. Now, he wants to dump on her for it.

On a certain level, this is a boring political fight. It is way too predictable, and the petty jealousies involved just some across too clearly.

Yet what amazes me about this issue is that it is one we still are arguing as we enter the second decade of the 21st Century.

Whether or not Peotone should ever be a full-fledged airport for the Chicago metropolitan area (complimenting the existing O’Hare International and Midway airports) is an argument that should have been resolved so long ago.

THE FACT THAT it hasn’t been is more of an embarrassment for Chicago political types than anything else.

I take this attitude because it was back in the early-to-mid 1980s that Federal Aviation Administration officials came to the realization that O’Hare International Airport was not capable of handling the aviation needs of Chicago, and could not be significantly expanded unless officials were prepared to start wiping suburban towns off the map to turn them into additional runways.

That might well be what the airlines would like to see, but it is not going to happen.

It was by the late 1980s that a process for picking a new airport site had worked its way down to a few possible locations – including Peotone. Then, the political hacks got involved, and probably permanently derailed any chance this issue ever had to turn into a real, brick-and-mortar airport.

I’M OLD ENOUGH to remember when Mayor Richard M. Daley wanted to pave over the Hegewisch neighborhood to create an airport site near Lake Calumet on the city’s far southeastern corner. Of course, that was so long ago that I wonder if anyone currently at City Hall has any recollection of what it was that Daley once proposed?

In recent years, it has turned into a political fight concerning who would control a prospective Peotone site, since Will County officials seem to think it should be regarded as their local airstrip under their control – rather than a part of the Chicago-area’s airport system as a whole.

That is why we have land being purchased, and occasional statements being made by local officials about how the project is inching its way toward completion. Yet I don’t know many people who seriously expect to ever catch a flight out-of-town at the proposed Lincoln Airport (as in Honest Abe).

Personally, I have two thoughts about the airport issue (which I wrote about in detail in the late 1980s when I was a reporter-type person for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago). One is that the only real problem with the idea of expanding the Gary/Chicago International Airport into a facility that would be worthy of its name is that the idea makes too much sense for political people to comprehend.

I STILL REMEMBER then-Lieutenant Gov. George Ryan saying he could not, in good conscience, vote for anything that supported putting an airport outside of Illinois’ boundaries, which is a small-minded attitude that makes him worthy of derision more than anything the conservative ideologues think he did wrong, connected to capital punishment.
HALVORSON: Will she be back?

The other thought is that I recall the talk from the late 1980s that explained just how long-range a project airport construction is. The idea was that if a site was picked back then, it would probably be sometime in the early 2000s that the first flight would land there at a small facility that would continue to be expanded. Completion of the overall airport would be sometime later in the decade.

Which means by now, had the personal politics not interfered, we’d have the airport, which is still essential if the Chicago metropolitan area is to retain its role as a transportation hub for the nation.

And the idea of making Halvorson – who during her time as a state senator worked her way up to the post of majority leader – into a prominent state agency head would be seen as the no-brainer decision that it truly is.


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