Is privatization the future for south suburban airport?
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Daily Herald File Photo A rural area in Will County came closer to becoming the site of the region's third airport after Illinois legislative action this week.
It's been in limbo for years with limited state funds, opposition from residents and feuding over local control, but plans for an airport near Peotone gained some traction this week.
The Illinois House approved legislation Thursday -- and the Senate did the same on Friday -- that would enable a private business to partner with the Illinois Department of Transportation to build and operate the so-called South Suburban Airport.
Aides to Gov. Pat Quinn, who supports the project, said the main sticking point was never whether to build the airport but who would govern it.
Two rival groups have sought control of the airport -- the Will County board and the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission, a coalition that comprised former U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and the towns of Elk Grove Village, South Holland, Park Forest, University Park and Calumet Park.
The House bill puts IDOT in charge of developing and owning the airport.
"This gives everyone who cares about the airport a path forward," said Sean O'Shea, Quinn's deputy chief of staff. "This is a key priority for the governor."
The state began buying land for the one-runway airport in 2002 and has spent about $38 million so far. It has acquired about 2,687 acres of the 5,800 acres required. But numerous farmers and other residents in the footprint of the project oppose it and have refused to sell their land.
About $71 million to buy the remaining parcels is included in the 2014 budget.
Future steps include Federal Aviation Administration approval and finding a private developer.
Recent forays into public-private partnerships in other states, including Kentucky, indicate the timing is right, O'Shea said. He added that Illinois will test the waters in June at a conference intended to gauge interest among businesses in developing the Illiana Expressway.
Will County Executive Larry Walsh supported Quinn's privatization step and said the next move was to see if the FAA approves the airport.
"We have many residents who have been waiting and waiting to hear whether this is or isn't (going to happen)," he said. "The guessing game will come to an end."
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