After decades of dispute, the possibility of a third airport in the Chicago area finally materialized Thursday as Gov. Pat Quinn signed a wide-ranging bill that'll put state transportation officials in charge of the hub and allow them to spend $71 million on land.
Hopeful talk of a South suburban airport has dominated this economically struggling area since the 1970s and spanned the careers of numerous politicians, including former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. But movement was stalled by fights over local control, revenue and environmental impact, as well as whether it was necessary, given the metropolitan area is already served by two major airports.
Quinn and other lawmakers touted the project Thursday as an economic starter for the area south of Chicago, estimated to create 14,000 jobs when it's functional. The bill Quinn signed was also jam-packed with unrelated projects, including allowing local entities to set up financing for a new 10,000-seat DePaul University sports arena near Lake Michigan and offering tax credits for fertilizer plants.
The focus of Thursday's bravado, though, was the airport.
"When we have strong transportation ... that is a key way of growing your economy and helping this particular region," Quinn said at Governors State University in University Park, not far from the proposed site. "This doesn't come easy."
The state has already spent about $40 million to acquire land for the project in an unincorporated stretch surrounded by several suburbs, including Peotone. The bill lets the Illinois Department of Transportation run the project, which will eventually be a public-private partnership. The airport that is expected to be a largely cargo hub and offer passenger service. Transportation officials have submitted a master plan to the Federal Aviation Administration, though no construction timeline was discussed Thursday.
Over the years, perhaps no public official brought more attention to the possible airport than Jackson, who considered it a pet project over his 17 years in office. But there was no mention of him or the long tensions over the airport. Jackson, a Chicago Democrat, resigned last year and is awaiting sentencing on federal charges that he misspent campaign funds.
Even those who did not like Jackson's approach to the project -- also a private-public partnership -- agreed that he kept the issue in the headlines, at least initially. In later years of his tenure, members of his staff suggested he may have hindered progress. Jackson held a symbolic ground breaking at the site last year though local officials remained opposed to the one-terminal, one-runway project.
"Former Congressman Jackson did nothing more than stall the airport for more than a decade," said former Will County Board member Cory Singer, a Republican who focused on the airport during 10 years in office. "It never was going to happen. For a decade it was nothing but a political battle."
Quinn sidestepped questions about Jackson, including whether his resignation helped push the project forward.
Jackson's longtime aide -- Rick Bryant -- did attend the bill signing but in the capacity of his new job -- senior adviser to U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, who was chosen to replace Jackson in April's special election. He did not give a speech and largely declined to comment.
"It's a transformational project," he said. "It's the biggest thing to happen in the South suburbs, perhaps ever."
Will County Executive Larry Walsh Sr. applauded Quinn and development in the region, but he didn't enthusiastically praise the project, saying the "giant step" forward would bring closure to years of debate and finally answer questions about the need for the airport.
Before the plan hit Quinn's desk, the proposal wasn't free from criticism. It was introduced at the tail end of the spring legislative session and crammed with unrelated projects, something legislators at the time deemed a "Christmas tree bill."
Also, it was ill-timed for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who backed the DePaul project as a way to develop the city's waterfront. City council members and the Chicago Teachers Union blasted him for pushing forward with development of a private university as he was pushing to close public schools because of budget constraints.
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, an Olympia Fields Democrat and one of the bill sponsors, dismissed those concerns about the timing and the combination of projects.
"They're related under the term economic development," she said in an interview. "When you combine that we how hard we've been hit with foreclosures, the best way to get people to people back to work as soon as possible is to invest in our infrastructure.
DePaul is located on the city's North Side, but the basketball team plays at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. The proposal would authorize financing to build the complex along Lake Michigan near McCormick Place convention center.
The bill also helps development of the Port of East St. Louis along the Mississippi River and change to the tax code involving farmland property.