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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Pritzker gas tax to help fund $205.5 million 'exit to nowhere'

Their View

By Ben Szalinski, Illinois Policy Institute | Oct 30, 2019

Illinois’ doubled gasoline tax will soon help generate $205.5 million for a road to farm fields where Gov. J.B. Pritzker wants a third major Chicagoland airport for which there is no demonstrated need.

The $205.5 million is from Pritzker’s $45 billion infrastructure plan, to be funded in part by the state gasoline tax that doubled in July. Originally he was planning to spend $162 million on the road from the record $40 billion state budget, but the funding grew by the time the state put its infrastructure plans in writing.

The money funds work on Interstate 57 and Eagle Lake Road, which leads to the farmland near Peotone to be named South Suburban Airport, or SSA. The money would create an interchange and purchase land for the project.

A statement from the governor’s office called the $205.5 million an investment in economic development in the south suburbs.

Pritzker previously had not taken a position on the airport. However, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson, and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan submitted a letter to him early this year signed by dozens of local politicians expressing their support for SSA. That lobbying led to Peotone road money being included in the state budget.

SSA has been discussed since the 1980s. The plan was opposed under the former administrations of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner. But project leaders believe they can have flights out of SSA in five years.

Although Pritzker believes spending money on the road will help get the airport off the ground, there is little demand within the industry for a third Chicago airport. Cargo carriers, which SSA proponents have focused on, have not committed to anything in southern Will Country. Many already have local hubs at O’Hare and Chicago Rockford International Airport, plus Gary International Airport recently expanded its cargo capabilities. Rockford is the fastest growing cargo airport in the world.

O’Hare is currently in the final stages of the O’Hare Modernization Program which will add 800,000 square feet of cargo space by 2021. The airport already brought in 2 million tons of cargo in 2018. Work has already begun on the ORD 21 plan at the airport, which will further increase the airport’s passenger capacity. This takes away a need to increase Chicago’s airport capacity.

Illinois’ has a history of backing airport projects that have no demonstrated need and suck away taxpayer money for decades.

MidAmerica St. Louis Airport near Belleville has been a drain for St. Clair County taxpayers. The airport was built in 1997 after traffic at St. Louis Lambert International Airport was predicted to exceed its capacity. That never happened, and MidAmerica struggled for years to maintain flights while draining $104.3 million from local taxpayers. Plus, debt for the airport’s construction was refinanced in 2015, which doubled it to $88 million and stretched out payments until 2045.

O’Hare’s story with politically motivated building projects has been no better. A July report for the Better Government Association outlines O’Hare’s five decades of corruption and overspending.

Projects are rarely finished on time or on budget. ORD 21 will cost $8.5 billion if it is completed on time and on budget in 2028. O’Hare also has the largest public debt of the five busiest airports in the nation.

Many of O’Hare’s construction projects are given to people with connections to Chicago City Hall. ORD 21 architect Jeanne Gang has connections with lobbyist Gery Chico, an ally of Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward. Burke, who faces a 14-count federal indictment for corruption, oversaw the issuance of $2 billion in new bonds for the project. Burke is a lawyer who helped his clients get property tax breaks at Midway. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in August that Burke was able to get $1.9 million in property tax refunds and interest for rental car companies Avis and Budget. His client Walsh Construction also received $53.3 million in 2011 to build a new parking garage.

Michael Kasper, the airport’s highest paid lobbyist, is Madigan’s lawyer and the Democratic Party of Illinois’ treasurer. He and his associates reported $8.1 million in lobbying fees related to the airport. Victor Reyes, a member of former mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, has made $1.6 million lobbying to get his clients involved with airport projects.

There is little reason to believe the construction of a third airport in Peotone will go any differently.

Without industry demand for a third major airport, pumping $205.5 million into a road project that leads to nowhere and an airport without flights is not an economic plan for the south suburbs. Until there is a demonstrated need, politicians should ground their ambitions for Peotone.

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