Tuesday, June 25, 2024
Urban Planning

GYY and Chicago’s Mythical “Third” Airport

Few weeks go by without discussion of the fabled “third airport” of the Chicago metropolitan area.  The collective pet project of a neverending supply of politicians who view it as the silver bullet, or crowning achievement of their careers, to solve all economic development woes in the South Metro (not the least visible of which being the recently-deposed Jesse Jackson, Jr.), the airport plan has failed to advance much farther beyond the planning stages. Meanwhile, Gary has a perfectly good airport. A fraction the size of Midway or O’Hare, but infrastructurally sound, and yet escaping, as Indiana does, the public imagination. “GYY—did you mean Guy, by any chance?” Google asks, ever polite but a bit confused.

The “third” airport was proposed as O’Hare reached critical capacity limits and the ‘burbs extended south and southwest (remember that the north shore is served by Milwaukee). Abraham Lincoln National Airport, as the name has been proposed. Imaginative—did he come from Illinois or something? Other names thrown around included that of the late Henry Hyde, a Republican representative from Illinois’ 6th District, which includes the northwestern suburbs of O’Hare. Once an airport-builder, always an airport-builder? No idea. Meanwhile, Gary quietly sits on the sidelines (as Indiana does. Fun fact: the Elgin, Joliet, & Gary railroad, or EJ&E, doesn’t even refer to Gary in its name—Gary is the “E” for “Eastern.” Go East, young man!).

While Peotone, the proposed location of the “third” airport, is 44 miles south of the Loop, not really in the Chicago metro at all (Gadling’s Grant Martin has a nice map of the Chicago metro and calls the airport the “Dulles” of Chicago), Gary Chicago is about equidistant from the loop with Northbrook at under 30 miles, and is also located along important rail lines including the NICTD South Shore commuter line, an important and reliable Indianan counterpart to the Chicago Metra, not to mention an extremely important heavy-rail corridor carrying intermodal freight, steel, and even a handful of Amtrak passengers. Urban planning logic here suggests capitalizing on existing infrastructure, unless no one has learned the extraordinary cost of building brand new infrastructure. Suburban sprawl ain’t cheap, and every morning I wake up and greet the dawn with the optimistic notion that people may today realize this.

Budget matters? Gary has scrambled to put together federal and local financing for its struggling airport, and it’s no surprise that hundreds of millions of dollars are considered a windfall when you’re living in the shadow of the economic giant of Chicago. It’s somewhat impressive to me as someone who is not natively from Chicago or Northwest Indiana, who doesn’t share the same stigma of Indiana vs. Chicago, that GYY was able to be put together so recently, especially while the Cook and Will County political entities discussed the possibility of a south suburbs airport not in Gary. Let’s start calling it the “fourth” airport for the sake of accuracy.

The major reason why no one wants Gary to usher in a new era of aviatory transport for Chicago is the same reason why no one wants Peotone. The administrative powers of Cook County and Chicago believe that their municipal authority is a kind of divine mandate; one major issue raised in discussions of GYY is the fact that it will provide revenue to the relatively well-off state of Indiana while Illinois lags far behind (pension deficits, anyone?). Peotone, similarly, is in Will County, not Cook County, and it is appears to be the goal of every good Cook County democrat to keep development within the family. Not to mention that it makes absolutely no sense to push development that far south when we’ve probably got enough vacant land on the West Side of Chicago to build a fourth, fifth, and probably a sixth airport in the city itself. (Not that I think this is a good idea.)

A secondary reason is that Gary Chicago (GYY) is itself lagging behind for a number of reasons. Struck by the budget cuts of the sequester, which also affect O’Hare (which, let’s be real, could probably stand to lose some traffic and therefore some delays), Gary stands to lose some of the already paltry volume of air traffic gracing its tarmacs. Even in GYY’s best recent year, it serves about a fifth of a percent of the traffic of Midway, which, further, serves less than a third of the traffic of O’Hare. Midway, of course, is far more efficient and easy to get to than O’Hare, which, only through the course of a publicly-funded, $8 billion plan which adds four runways, will allegedly decrease delays by 4/5. (I’ll believe it when I see it, having been delayed by two hours in and out of O’Hare on my most recent flights.) Most of GYY’s traffic is general aviation, a double-digit percentage is military, and about one percent is commercial passenger travel

Still, it gets decent reviews, people love them on Yelp (five stars to O’Hare’s three), and there’s a possibility of privatization which would be profitable for the city and for the airport, something also being discussed at Midway. Embracing market logic might be the best future for commercial aviation, so long as it doesn’t dominate local governments by scoring handout upon handout, as is typically required with airports, behemoths that swallow up land and cash just to keep the lights on. It’ll probably never happen with O’Hare, barring some major municipal-economic catastrophe in Cook County. (23rd Ward Alderman Michael Zalewski said that O’Hare is simply too big to privatize. Like a bank too big to fail? O’Hare and the political maelstrom that begat it have funneled billions to developers and corporations since the airport’s construction in a continuing, vicious cycle, so go figure.) In the worst-case scenario, privatization would lead to high prices as it has with the Skyway and public parking (though not in Indiana, where Mitch Daniels’ lease of the tollway has been quite successful and resulted in part in a more balanced state budget). Privatization is a tricky process and a can of worms that must be approached with care to ensure that this sort of thing is not even within the realm of possibility.

Indeed, many hollow political promises later, we have little to show for the south suburbs airport. But I’m not sure we’ve considered all options. Let’s work toward a more functional, integrated metro area that involves both sides of the border—GYY is a step in that direction and at a fraction of the cost of the alternatives. Some progress is being made: After a new, corporate jet tenant has joined the GYY scene, Boeing is perhaps worried that a wayward executive after too many scotches is going to T.P. one of its executive aircraft. Territoriality setting in among fish in small ponds, or just growing pains? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Images courtesy of the FAA.

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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