IDOT targets Chicago capacity: State agency continues to lead the effort to add a mid-U.S. commercial airport

Sept. 8, 2004

One In A Series

Idot Targets Chicago Capacity

State agency continues to lead the effort to add a mid-U.S. commercial airport

By John F. Infanger

September 2004

In August, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary NormanMineta, using authority given him by Vision 100 legislation, tookthe initiative to reduce air carrier delays at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The move comes after a DOT report that shows nearly 58,600 delays at O'Hare for the first six months of 2004 — morethan were experienced at ORD in 2000, 2001, or 2002. In this report,one in an ongoing series in AIRPORT BUSINESS, the Illinois Department of Transportation provides an update of its initiative to ease the Midwest congestion issue via a third commercial airport in the Chicago area at Peotone, IL.

Dick Smith, IDOT

The U.S. DOT and Federal Aviation Administration have been working with the air carriers for some time to reduce the O'Hare delays with little impact. Earlier this year, ORD's hub carriers, United and American, agreed to voluntary cuts of 7.5 percent at the airport; however, other carriers have added flights.

At press time, DOT/FAA had not issued specific directives to reduce ORD delays but informed the carriers they were forthcoming if industry was not able to voluntarily come up with plans to ease the congestion. In particular, DOT/FAA seeks to have the airlines smooth out their schedules to reduce stress at current peak landing and takeoff periods.

At the same time, the City of Chicago continues to push for its multi-billion dollar O'Hare Modernization Program (OMP), which critics fear will drain billions of dollars from the system while only exasperating the delay problem. In late August, DOT reported that the department's request for comments on O'Hare schedule cutbacks had solicited many that were against the OMP, including transit and environmental interests.

It is all part of the ongoing debate of system capacity in general, and Chicago regional planning and capacity in particular. Through it all for more than a decade, the Illinois Department of Transportation has pushed for a third commercial airport for the Chicago region.

Recalls IDOT director of planning and programming Dick Smith, "FAA has recognized since back in the ‘80s when O'Hare redid its master plan; in its record of decision, FAA said the state should start investigating a conditional commercial service airport [for the Chicago region]. So we did — with studies that eventually chose the site in eastern Will County. They [FAA] started the process and are working with us to complete it.

"FAA has been and continues to be supportive of a third major airport in the Chicago area. Given recent stories about congestion and delays at O'Hare and how it impacts the rest of the nation, that strengthens the position for the South Suburban airport. It's needed to address national airspace issues."

Next Up: EIS, Master Plan Approvals
The Illinois DOT is again gearing up its public relations initiative on the Peotone project while also purchasing acreage at the site, completing the environmental impact statement (EIS), and working on the master plan.

According to Smith, IDOT is the "lead" on getting FAA approvals to the point of actual construction, at which time the Illinois legislature will name an official airport sponsor that will be responsible for building the infrastructure. Says Smith, "We have purchased roughly half of the property needed at the inaugural site, in total some 4,000 acres that would be the initial start-up airport. We are continuing to work with willing sellers, although that number is dwindling."

Smith says IDOT is hopeful that FAA will give its final approvals for the EIS and master plan within two years. Along the way, IDOT has been getting input from the two groups that are pursuing eventual sponsorship: Will County and the South Suburban Airport Commission. "Their interest is actually in constructing the airport when the record of decision is approved [by FAA]," he explains.

The Illinois DOT is serving as the lead to get the third commercial airport in Chicago in position to be built. Once that occurs, actual terminal infrastructure will be determined by the to-be-named airport sponsor. One potential sponsor, the South Suburban Airport Commission, has proposed the terminal at right.

IDOT's expenses for the EIS, master plan, and land acquisition come from a $75 million fund established by the Illinois legislature in 1999. Smith says that both Will County and the SSAC have plans to repay the state's investment.

Regarding the O'Hare Modernization Program, Smith says IDOT is not directly integrating its Peotone initiative with Chicago's regional plans. "I'm not sure our project interacts at all," comments Smith. "What we have said for a couple of years now is, O'Hare needs to be modernized and a third airport needs to be built. The state does not have a role in what is happening at O'Hare. Our main concern is to relieve congestion."

Meanwhile, Smith does not see a significant impact by efforts to expand service at nearby Chicago Gary Regional, which is today part of a quasi-authority partnered with the Chicago Department of Aviation. "Gary cannot be the third [commercial] airport," says Smith. "It's constrained in terms of its potential growth."