Regional Balance: Group proposes public/private partnership for third Chicago airport

April 8, 2004


Regional Balance

Group proposes public/private partnership for third Chicago airport

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL)Rick Bryant

For more than 25 years there has been talk of building an additional airport to serve the needs of the Chicago region. Now that O’Hare International Airport’s capacity is being tested, as well as the airspace capacity, the idea is looking more like a reality. The South Suburban Airport Commission is one group working to bring an innovative concept in airport development to Chicago’s southern tier, creating what SSAC executive director Rick Bryant calls regional balance.

Created last year under a state law by which municipalities can join together and create an airport commission, the South Suburban Airport Commission is comprised of more than 30 municipalities, says Bryant, who is also district administrator for Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), a long-time supporter of the project.

SSAC is financed by Bensonville and Elk Grove Village, two northwest Chicago communities. “They have such strong local economies,” explains Bryant, “that they can afford to pay some of these up front costs. But [they] will be reimbursed for their expenses through airport revenues. And once the airport is up and running, they’re out of the commission and the only members will be from the south suburbs.”

“We have a plan to build an airport through a public/private partnership,” says Bryant. “It’s an innovative idea for building airports in the United States, but it’s a proven and successful model around the world.”

He explains that the SSAC is proposing that the new airport be built with private financing. Private investors will finance, design, and build the airport.

Says Bryant, if the airport were publicly funded, “you’re in competition for tight dollars at the federal end. Also, with the economy, the state isn’t in a position to finance this. We thought we could find someone who would develop it for us. And it just seemed like an efficient way to get it done.”
The state of Illinois has been purchasing land at the proposed site near University Park, IL, and according to Bryant, has acquired nearly half of the 4,400 acres required for the first phase of development. SSAC expects to either buy or lease the land from the state, using airport revenues.

The Will County region, says Bryant, is the fastest growing county in the Midwest, and the last area to be developed around Chicago. In the mid-’80s, a bi-state site selection committee was established to look at some eight proposed sites for an additional airport. “The South Suburban site, near University Park, ranked best when you put all the grids together and add up all the advantages and disadvantages,” he says. “From our perspective, it would bring balance to the region’s economy. You’d have O’Hare in the northwest suburbs, you have Midway in the western suburbs, and you’d have South Suburban Airport. You’d have three airports spread out in three different airspaces, serving three different portions of the market. There are 2.5 million people that live within a 45-minute drive of the South Suburban Airport site. Hard to imagine any area of the country where there’s 2.5 million people and there’s no airport.”

At press time, SSAC was in the process of reviewing proposals from two bidders: Washington Group International, and a joint venture between LCOR and SNC-Lavalin.

WGI was a major builder of the new Denver International Airport, while SNC-Lavalin has experience with public/private partnerships as it built, financed, owns, and operates such airports as the Vancouver, BC airport and Vatry, Paris’s third airport. LCOR is part of the consortium that built, financed, owns, and operates JFK’s International Terminal 4.

Both bidders were asked to submit a master plan and a financing plan. “Part of the finance plan is how much money they are going to give back to the commission so that we can do off-site development and related development, and how they’re going to pay back the state for the land,” says Bryant. They were also asked to present short-, mid-, and long-term plans for growth at the airport. “We want them to design this airport 40 years from now and then bring it back down to what they need for opening day. We want to be able to build phase two while phase one is still in full operation.”

The inaugural site of the proposed South Suburban Airport includes 4,400 acres.

To start with, Bryant expects the airport would be quite modest with one 8,500-foot runway, with a five or six gate terminal on the 4,400 acres. The full build-out of the airport could include 24,000 acres and up to four runways, as demand dictates. “This includes a huge buffer ring around it,” says Bryant. “So much of that 24,000 acres would continue to be used as farm land, but you won’t end up, ultimately, having a situation like at O’Hare where you have communities at the end of the runway. This will be the most environmentally friendly designed airport in the country.”

Bryant estimates phase one of the airport will cost some $500 million, and says that no federal airport improvement program dollars will be used to fund the initial development. “Down the road, there’s always a possibility,” he says.

Early plans for the airport also include cargo facilities. “A fair amount of space for cargo has been set aside,” says Bryant. “The airport is located near several major rail corridors and interstate highways. It’s a natural for cargo.” SSAC has requested that cargo development plans be included in the developers’ proposals.

SSAC has a fairly expedited development schedule, says Bryant. “We think we could have the opening as soon as 2008 or 2009,” he says.

Currently, FAA is performing the environmental impact statement for development of the inaugural site. According to FAA spokesperson Tony Molinaro, the state, as sponsor of the airport site, requested a three-tiered environmental process. “Tier one, which was completed last year, looked at the environmental impact of [the state] buying the land. Tier two, which we’re at the beginning of, is what’s the environmental impact of actually building and operating an airport on that land. We’re also working with the state to settle on forecast numbers: forecasted flights and forecasted passengers in the next five to ten years.”

Illinois Department of Transpor-tation spokesperson Matt Vanover, says the state is in the process of developing a master plan for the inaugural airport site, “but feels that we have to move forward first with getting the approval for the actual airport.”