April 24, 2012

A missed flight for Indiana?

by Dave Kitchell

— Sometimes something symbolic can represent the best news in one state and the most pessimistic in another.

That unfortunately may be the case for Indiana, or at least northern Indiana in the wake of a ceremony last Saturday in Peotone, Ill.

An event that might have generated less coverage than it warranted in the Midwest turned the first shovel of dirt for a proposed third Chicago airport. Peotone has been talked about for years as an option to relieve the growth sprawl of O’Hare International west of Chicago. But the Peotone proposal has had about all the appeal in the airline industry of Howard Hughes’ eight-engine “Spruce Goose” flying low over a forest fire.

Last Saturday’s ceremony was curious for a couple of reasons. The first is that there is no money to build the airport, even though Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn wants to buy property at the same time he wants to slash billions from his state’s Medicaid program and ask public employees to pick up more of a state pension program that is only 43 percent funded. It’s estimated to take 30 years for Illinois to catch up.

Meanwhile, private investors from Canada supposedly have funding available, even though farmers are protesting the sacrifice of land in a rural area 30 miles south of downtown Chicago.

What’s important to note about this story is that Indiana is no longer on the radar of plans for a third major airport. Since the 1990s, there had been talk that upgrading Gary Airport, which is virtually right on the doorstep of downtown Chicago, would be a more affordable option and more convenient not only to the South Shore Railroad, but the Indiana Toll Road and interstates 80 and 94.

The two states have literally squandered political capital when Richard Daley was Chicago mayor, and Indiana had a trio of Democratic governors. Then again, Indiana might have had a stronger case to make when George W. Bush was president, Gary had a Republican mayor in Scott King and Mitch Daniels was governor, but that, too, didn’t come to pass, perhaps because northwest Indiana has a habit of never voting for Republicans.

Politics aside, an expanded Gary airport could have gone a long way in redeveloping one of the poorest areas in the state. The steel industry that literally built Gary when it was founded in 1906 is not what it used to be, but the pollution that industry created isn’t around either. Casino boats are anchored, but have had a difficult time making a profit off the shores of Lake Michigan. The boats themselves represent a potential key to transporting passengers to downtown Chicago if a third airport ever materializes in Gary.

Helping the casino industry would be virtually pure profit for state coffers because the boats are heavily taxed.

For Daniels, the window of opportunity is gone, but the leasing of the Indiana Toll Road he initiated represents a funding mechanism the state could pursue if it issued bonds to build an airport on this side of the Land of Lincoln. If the state did make that move, it would be similar to the state financing deal for Lucas Oil Stadium.

In the grand picture of Indiana transportation, the other reason for building the third airport in Indiana is the timeliness of air travel and cargo transport. Most of Indiana’s population is in the northern half of the state, yet when airline passengers drive to Indianapolis to catch a flight, chances are good they’ll be changing planes in Chicago, if not at least stopping there to pick up passengers. A third Chicago area airport in Indiana would provide more direct flights to places not only across the country, but to other countries.

Meanwhile, as suburban Indianapolis grows, it will be increasingly difficult to get to Indianapolis International.

Will Peotone ever play in Peoria? Maybe it will, but maybe it won’t.

The head of United Airlines said last week a third airport would only hurt O’Hare, and it’s not needed.

And maybe a third airport isn’t needed today, but spreading the wealth of the airline industry east to Indiana could do a great deal to alter the avaiation landscape of the Midwest and position northwest Indiana for the kind of renewal it so desperately needs.

It may never happen, but then again, if someone had told you 10 years ago that Indiana would lease its toll road for more than $3 billion, who would have believed it?

• Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached through the newspaper at