Few projects have cost more and produced less than Chicago’s phantom third-airport

WILL COUNTY — Elected officials have talked about a third Chicago-area airport for decades but they have little to show for it.

They claimed there was demand and the state started buying up land in the far southern suburbs. But several years, and millions of dollars later, the project has gone nowhere.

You’d be hard pressed to find a project that’s cost more and produced less.

Lee Deutsche is a farmer in Will County.  In 2002, the Deutsches got a letter about Governor George Ryan’s priorities and it included opening of a South Suburban Airport within five years.  They could voluntarily sell their land, or the state would simply take it.

“We ran scared in the beginning and now we’ve just kind of decided to have our life go on,” Deutsche said. “You’re proud to be a farmer but you really can’t say you’re proud to be a farmer in the State of Illinois.”

“They can wash the dirt away but they can’t get the soil out of their souls,” Mary Ann Deutsche said.  “There’s no price that will take this land away from them. The state, they don’t get that. … We’ve lost family, friends, a lot of farmland.  It’s now being farmed by the State of Illinois.  Farmers will take those contracts but they’re not stewards of the land.”

While many sold, two generations of the Deutsche family refused.

WGN Investigates found the state has purchased 4,554 acres of land over the last 20 years. Total purchase price is a little more than $97 million.

There is an airport on the area with a few small planes flying in and out each day.  It’s existed for decades.  John Greuling, head of economic development for Will County Economic said it is a "footprint of the South Suburban Airport.”

Over the years, former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. pushed relentlessly for a third airport and even held a ceremonial ground breaking.  In 2014, former Governor Pat Quinn accelerated the buying blitz.

“I don’t care whether it’s five years or 30 years from now, we will need a third airport, period,” Greuling said.

Grueuling and the airport’s remaining advocates  now say the growth of companies like Amazon demonstrate a “real” third airport would likely be home to cargo, rather than passenger flights.

“Air cargo is just, pardon the pun, taking off in terms of demand nationally and globally,” Greuling said.  “And I don’t believe Chicago without a third airport will have the capacity to meet the demand in the future.”

Governor JB Pritzker has been non-committal on a third airport. An IDOT spokesperson said the project is “under review” to “determine if it makes sense for the region’s aviation system”

While the state insists it hasn’t been actively seeking land since 2015, records reviewed by WGN Investigates show the project is far from dormant. The state has spent more than $3 million since 2015 buying land.  The most recent purchase closed in June of last year.  30 acres for $675,000.

IDOT now believes a public-private partnership may be the best hope of getting the South Suburban Airport off the ground.  But two years after issuing a call for applications, there’s no progress to report.

 

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