Jan. 18--The chairman of a key congressional panel said Tuesday the proposed runway expansion project at O'Hare International Airport is a "Band-Aid" that will not significantly increase air traffic capacity and that a proposed regional airport near Peotone is needed to improve the nation's aviation system.
"This is a key project not only for your area but for the nation," said U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the house aviation subcommittee, noting that the nation's air traffic is expected to double in 15 to 25 years.
Mica's comments came at a meeting in Joliet with Will County officials and U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) in which he was briefed on the county's plan for the proposed airstrip.
The plan calls for building a $388 million starter airport on 4,200 acres being acquired by the state south of Monee and University Park and between the towns of Peotone and Beecher. County officials would install an 11-member governing board to oversee development and operations, consisting of six representatives from Will County, one from Kankakee County, two from southwest Cook County and two ex-officio members appointed by the governor.
Mica praised Weller, county officials and a coalition of business and labor leaders from the three counties for "putting together a solid foundation for the airport project."
But he stopped short of giving the proposal a ringing endorsement. A competing plan put forward by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and his Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission, made up primarily of representatives from southern Cook County, also has "some good elements," Mica said.
He applauded the recent passage of a Weller-sponsored amendment to the defense appropriations bill that ensures Will County would have majority representation on any governing board created to oversee Peotone development.
Jackson has argued the amendment would seriously delay, if not scuttle, the project, but Mica noted that because the proposed airport would be entirely in Will, the county should have majority representation.
He did question Will County's cost estimate, saying the price tag would likely be much higher. Whatever the cost, it is a "wise investment," ensuring a productive local economy and an efficient aviation system for years to come, Mica said.
Aviation accounts for about 11 to 12 percent of the nation's annual gross domestic product, he said.
"Whenever O'Hare goes down, the nation's aviation system starts to crumble. The improvements at O'Hare will only improve safety but not capacity," he said.
"That's why this is a key project. There will be bumps in the road, but we've got to continue working together to make it happen. It's in the nation's best interest."
Mica made his comments a day after it was announced that the federal government had pledged $57.8 million over 10 years for the expansion of the Gary-Chicago International Airport. Neither Mica nor Will County officials mentioned the pledge or the contention by Gary officials that their airport should be considered Chicago's third major airfield.