Cain: Author says South Suburban Airport will never fly
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain On Businessemail@example.com September 22, 2013 1:05PM
Updated: October 23, 2013 6:42AM
I almost fell out of my chair on Wednesday at the Global Logistics Summit in Bolingbrook when Greg Lindsay, the final keynote speaker, bashed the proposed South Suburban Airport as being a white elephant in waiting.
Lindsay, author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next,” said the airport goes against the grain of what he’s seeing in the world with large mega airports getting bigger and bigger and attracting more and more business. He cited Dubai International Airport and Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as examples.
That pattern is the opposite of the so-called “reliever” airports built in some U.S. cities that seem to be languishing, he said.
The state of Illinois has spent $40 million so far acquiring land for the SSA, which would be built in eastern Will County near Peotone. The project has been kicked around for decades but recently picked up steam when the Legislature said the airport could be built with a public-private partnership and it gave control of the project to the Illinois Department of Transportation.
While many eastern Will County residents oppose the airport, a lot of state and local officials are in favor of it, including members of the Will County Center for Economic Development, which sponsored the Global Logistics Summit. That’s why I was shocked that Lindsay was a featured speaker.
While Lindsay stressed that he is not an aviation expert, he has an impressive resume. He’s a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and a research affiliate of the New England Complex Systems Institute. He also is known for beating IBM super computer Watson in “Jeopardy” matches.
Lindsay, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., has one more qualification: He lived in Manteno until he was 12 and was seven miles from the airport site before his family moved to Bourbonnais.
“I can’t believe it’s still going,” he said of the project when he was in Bolingbrook on Wednesday. “I’m shocked.”
While proponents think the SSA will be a magnet for jobs and growth, Lindsay is skeptical that any major airlines would locate there.
“No one has a real plan on who would serve that airport,” he said. “The big three carriers have not expressed any interest.”
An airport alone will not guarantee economic spin-off, he said.
“If you just build an airport there, it can just sit there empty, which is what MidAmerica (in southern Illinois near St. Louis) is doing. ... I will happily go on the record saying I do not believe the South Suburban Airport would be an economic engine for the region. No one has shown me a path for that,” he said.
He also questioned the estimate of 14,000 permanent jobs espoused by Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider at the same global logistics conference.
“I would love to see where that number comes from,” he said. “I could see the construction jobs, that one is obvious. But this permanent job base around the airport? I absolutely have no idea how they come up with this.”
Instead, Lindsay said Chicago should continue with its O’Hare International Airport modernization project.
“O’Hare, despite its congestion problems, has that critical mass of infrastructure around it,” he said.
I had one final question for Lindsay before I left the conference. I asked him if John Greuling, president and CEO of the CED, knew that his keynote speech would be anti-SSA.
“He was open to that,” Lindsay said of Greuling.
Airport proponents and opponents alike have said the SSA’s new public-private financing model should help keep white elephants out of Will County because a private developer would have to research the project’s viability or risk losing millions of dollars.
Lindsay agreed private scrutiny of the project should help prevent an airport flop.
“Now they’re going to have a cold, hard bath of market reality,” he said.
Greuling was not flustered by Lindsay’s comments, and I give him credit for opening up Will County to a little outside review of the project. But Lindsay didn’t change Greuling’s mind.
“We’re not shooting for an aerotropolis,” Greuling said. “We’re shooting for an airport that will serve very local needs. ... I think the continued population growth and the underserved aviation demand down here and the FAA forecasts, whether (Lindsay) likes them or not, show we have over 2.5 million people who will be flying more and more within a 35- to 40-minute drive of our footprint.”
But Greuling said he also agrees that the key to the project going forward will be finding airlines to use it.
“We’re not doing a MidAmerica here,” he said. “If we don’t find an airline that commits for a substantial amount of use, the airport will not get done.”