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Crosscurrents: Shifting political winds affect future of air travel for three Illinois Communities

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Alfalfa and beans still dominate the landscape in rural Will County where eight years ago state transportation officials sowed plans for runways.

Politics choked out the proposed bird Chicago-area regional airport early on. Beyond a harvest of government studies and consultants' reports, little related to the planned airport has taken root in that south suburban region.

Today, there are new signs of life, though. One harbinger: The Illinois Department of Transportation has started negotiating with Peotone-area landowners for property where the airport would sit.

Still, there are a few weeds in is plot.

During the nearly decade-long stalemate, discussion among locals never went much beyond "if" on the question of an airport in Peotone, a small farming community in eastern Will County. These days, elected leaders are speaking in terms of "when," while preparing to answer the next major question: Who will pay?

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, recently called on local governments to lend a monetary hand. "The state is not going to just stroll in with a pile of dough and pay for this thing," Madigan spokesman Steve Brown says.

Local leaders, however, are wary of such demands. "It would be another example of a double standard. Other airports across the state have received state aviation funds that don't depend on local governments or counties to generally support the costs of development," says Ed Paesel, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association.

In fact, it takes a lot of seed money to build airline runways, hangars, control towers and terminals. The estimated initial construction cost for this proposed airport is $500 million, and somebody will have to come up with those dollars. A combination of federal funds, private investment and state money likely would cover the cost, Paesel says. The Federal Aviation Administration would provide some funding through its airport trust fund, an airline would kick in some money and the state would contribute through land acquisition, which already is under way.

"Users of the airport also would provide funding, or we could privatize part of it," Paesel adds. "For example, a private company could build a fuel farm in return for a long-term lease."

An airport authority likely would control operations at the airport, and Will County officials want to be intimately involved in that.

When third airport talks surfaced in the early 1990s and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley pushed for a site at Lake Calumet, legislation drafted for the third airport called for a Kankakee Valley Airport Authority, which included representatives from the city of Chicago and DuPage County. Neither the proposed airport nor the authority got off the ground. But the enabling legislation still exists, and Will County Executive Joseph Mikan doesn't want to see an authority for a Peotone airport dominated by people who don't live there.

"I don't think it's realistic to say that Will County should be the sole overseer of the airport, but I think it's very realistic to say Will County needs to be a major partner," Mikan says.

Meanwhile, Gov. George Ryan and state transportation officials have begun to negotiate the sale of land in the Peotone area, though lawmakers have questioned whether the state is tilling that ground too soon. A federal environmental study of the project still is under way, and federal transportation officials have not publicly committed to the Peotone site. (A Republican in the White House increases the chances that will occur.)

Additionally, there is some question whether lawmakers will refuse to agree to the $45 million Ryan set aside for land acquisition. The money was appropriated over a three-year period but set aside until now. Technically, lawmakers must reappropriate the full amount as part of Ryan's budget this spring.

"There have been discussions about whether there should be a straight-up vote on the previous $30 million and the new $15 million," Madigan spokesman Brown says. "I'm not aware there's a consensus to do that, but it has been talked about."

And so, despite recent progress on airport discussions, there are reasons for skepticism. Daley still opposes the plan, though he has come under increasing pressure to alleviate Chicago's air capacity problems. A Democrat could be elected governor in 2002, possibly undoing progress made during Ryan's term. And powerful congressional figures are not entirely on board. U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Yorkville Republican who could wield great influence over the project, has remained neutral.

Peotone farmers have been hearing about the airport for more than a decade. Their "No Airport" signs are faded and peeling. Yet the whisper of cornstalks, not the roaring of planes, still echoes across the region. 

As government and politics writer for the Daily Southtown, Kristen McQueary has written extensively about the third airport debate.

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