Lake County environmentalists opposed to the sale of 52 acres of forest preserve land to make room for a Waukegan National Airport runway extension say an internal “forecast” shows the project is being done primarily to benefit corporations rather than the general public.
The report — prepared by a consultant at the request of the Federal Aviation Administration — says the project was requested through “direct input from corporate users” of the airport expressing a desire for a longer runway that would enable a popular jet model to make more nonstop flights to some international destinations.
For years, the Waukegan National Airport and its operator, the Waukegan Port District, have been planning how to replace the airport’s 6,000-foot 5/23 runway, which they say is at the end of its useful life.
The internal forecast provides a window into the previously unclear desires of tight-lipped corporations key to the airport’s vitality, including Abbott, Baxter International and AbbVie, though no specific companies are named in the report.
Updated in 2020, the 65-page forecast report was part of a process to, “guide preparation of environmental analyses of the proposed airport development,” according to a letter in the document.
The report notes that, “three of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world are based tenants at UGN,” the airport’s specific abbreviation, and that user input revealed, “the existing primary runway length precludes aircraft from being able to efficiently reach desired domestic and international destinations.”
“Many times, corporate flight departments will be required to make an inefficient technical stop for additional fuel due to Runway 5/23′s 6,000-foot runway length,” the report says.
The runway extension project has been estimated to cost as much as $186 million, and would see the creation of an $11 million trail connection through parts of the Waukegan Savanna land owned by the Lake County Forest Preserves.
The proposal cleared an early hurdle in February after representatives from the airport, its operator, the Waukegan Port District, the Lake County business community and an operator of emergency medical flights urged the Lake County Forest Preserve District Board to endorse a memorandum of understanding signaling an interest in pursuing the project to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Over frustrated protests from environmentalists, the board voted 16-3 in favor of the nonbinding memorandum.
Some of the critics, including Sierra Club Illinois Chapter Woods and Wetlands Group Chair Doug Ower and Wadsworth resident Susan Zingle, told the News-Sun the forecast shows how corporate entities — and not the public — are the main focus of the airport upgrade.
“It’s really only for these few corporate jets overseas,” Ower said. “I mean, they literally can fly (across) the Continental U.S.”
The environmental groups opposed to the project include Openlands, Midwest Sustainability, Clean Power Lake County and the Lake County Audubon Society.
Ultimately, members of the Lake County Forest Preserve District Board hold the key to greenlighting or rejecting the current proposal.
For safety or the VIPs?
Proponents of the project see things quite differently, emphasizing a need to improve safety and comply with FAA standards that have changed since the old runway was built.
Skip Goss, the airport’s general manager, said the forecast is “complex” and has “so many variables,” though he did not dispute the veracity of the note about input from “corporate users.”
“It’s a forecast, right, just like the weather,” he told the News-Sun. “I mean, it’s not going to be exact, spot on. But it’s the best (projection) with all the information available of what this is going to look like 20 years from now.”
He touted the benefits to the Lake County Forest Preserves and thousands of residents who would gain access to more trails, with the plan to build a connection and only fence-off part of the land needed to create a safety barrier at each end of the proposed 7,000-foot runway.
“ (This part of the savanna) been abandoned for years and years, and it’s just choked with buckthorn,” Goss said. “So we propose a clearing of all this, and making it back into a savanna habitat with the right flora that is planted out there, and maintaining it in such as way that the forest preserve wants.”
Goss said he anticipated that an intergovernmental agreement, which would be binding, could come later this year or early in 2024, and that the project would be “probably the biggest general aviation project in Illinois, if not in the Midwest.”
The airport is hoping to land significant federal funding for the project, and Goss said Tuesday that, “users of the airport are prepared to pay for any gap in funding.”
“This is a win for the community,” Goss said. “You get a trail. It’s a win for the Forest Preserves District, where we’re actually a catalyst in getting this Waukegan Savanna moving in the direction they would like it, and it’s obviously a win for the airport.
“We’re providing a viable, competitive airport to serve the general aviation community and the community at large,” he continued. “A lot of people don’t understand all the ancillary benefits an airport brings.”
Goss also said the public benefits from the airport operations, which include the yearly production of an air show in the fall, and significant contributions to local tax bases.
Zingle, a Wadsworth resident who has vocally opposed the long-debated project, believes the forecast illustrates that corporations using the airport for private travel would be the primary beneficiaries of the runway extension, and that proponents of the project have misled local decision-makers and activists about the project being primarily about making safety improvements.
Because of its prominence and a gradual increase in use by corporations, the forecast report identified the Gulfstream G550, a long-range jet already in use by some clients at the airport, as the “critical design airplane” that would make the most regular use of the proposed runway.
The forecast projected an increase from about 660 Gulfstream G550 jet operations in 2016 and 2017 to 1,630 annual operations between 2017 and 2027. In a no-build scenario, the projection rose less steeply to 912 annual operations of the jets.
“In order for these planes to operate safely ... at full (fuel) capacity, they need a 7,000-foot runway,” Goss said. “That’s what the forecast recommends.”
More than one critical aircraft can be considered when facility plans and needs are under consideration by the FAA. While the airport does see some use by Boeing 737 jets, which cannot fuel up fully for takeoff, projections for operations did not change in the forecast’s annual build or no-build scenario.
The report also notes how, “Historically, numerous corporate aircraft not based at UGN have also regularly visited the airport. As markets continue to globalize, corporations will be under pressure to meet business expectations both domestically and internationally. These pressures will drive the need for aircraft with greater range and higher efficiencies at UGN.”
The forecast concluded that projections for a strong growth outlook in the health care and pharmaceutical industries could, in combination with the airport’s proximity to companies in those fields, “potentially mean an increase in aviation activity for corporate tenants at UGN.”
Everyday residents, though, are likely priced out from commissioning their own Gulfstream G550 planes to utilize at the airport. One online seller listed a 2012 model for more than $24 million.
But project proponents have emphasized a need to improve safety and comply with altered federal regulations, which they say are the impetus for the runway extension, and is a reason they could not simply reconstruct the runway at the same length.
“To me, this project has been about safety and that’s really what’s driving this,” Lake County Partners CEO Kevin Considine said. “That’s what’s driving this from the FAA standpoint as well.”
Ower, who has scoured for all public information he can find about airport operations, said that G550 flights are “already being done” at the airport, and he believes that “we’re only really talking a few flights that are going to Japan, China or New Zealand, or something.”
The Zion resident, who said he has often had to stop mid-conversation to allow planes to pass overhead, said the airport could consider alternatives such as EMAS, an Engineered Material Arresting System, to absorb the kinetic energy and safely stop planes that overrun the runway. He noted that Midway International deploys EMAS and has larger commercial jets that still are able to safely use the airport’s longest runway of just over 6,500 feet.
“There’s no reason why they could put this in with EMAS which is shorter, and then I would like to know ... (if) they show what they could build without taking forest preserve land.”
Competition in Kenosha
Developments by the airport’s northern neighbor, the Kenosha Regional Airport, seem to have raised the stakes for the Waukegan airport.
A project expanding Kenosha’s longest runway to 6,600 feet, and a general effort to attract more business, has operators in Waukegan worried about retention.
Goss said, “We’re trying to keep ourselves viable for the next 50 years; compete with the guys of the north, keep the businesses and companies here and not going to Wisconsin. And keep it viable for the community here, in which, it actually needs it around here.
“I mean, if this airport really shrunk and it had to close for two or three years, most of these big corporations would leave, most of the jobs would go away (and) your tax base goes away,” he continued. “Now your tax bill goes up.”
Ower countered that it’s not an “unreasonable position we want to keep our open lands.”
He argued that past sales of some parcels of forest preserve land for road projects are a “big difference,” because of their vast public use. Ower also pointed out that larger jets tend to have different flight patterns when entering and exiting the airport, which often sees them fly closely over Zion.
“There’ll be increased emissions from jets, and there’ll be increased noise,” Ower said.
“I don’t think the average person in Zion has been asked about how they feel about (the airport’s) jet traffic,” he said. “And they certainly haven’t been told that there’s a forecast (showing) a large increase, because literally, we just got that.”
Zingle was also skeptical about whether companies would actually take their business elsewhere if they don’t get their way.
“Where are they going to go?” she asked. “ ( Chicago Executive Airport) is smaller. Kenosha, 6,600 feet. Nobody’s got 7,000 feet.”
Both Considine and Goss downplayed the significance of corporate desires for the project.
Attempts to reach a representative at the FAA’s Chicago Airports District Office were unsuccessful.
Following the Lake County Forest Preserve District’s approval of the memorandum of understanding in February, the FAA released its draft environmental assessment for review by the board’s members.
After a 30-day review and comment period among “cooperating agencies,” the environmental assessment is expected to be released to the public around May 1, ahead of a public hearing or multiple hearings about the project that will follow before it would get any go-ahead.
Forest preserve commissioners told the News-Sun they are unable to remove a hard copy of the roughly 1,200-page draft from where it is being stored, and that no electronic copy was available.
One commissioner, District 6 member John Wasik, D- Grayslake, told the News-Sun the dealings relating to the environmental assessment are “not a transparent process,” and said it is “challenging and cynically unrealistic to expect commissioners and staff to pore through 1,200 paper pages of a mostly technical aviation document in 30 days.”
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