The Airport that Just Won’t Die

Like a cold sore or a nasty case of bronchitis, the Great Imaginary Airport near Peotone just won’t go away. Not even with a prescription.

After many months of keeping a low profile, the Illinois Department of Transportation made a news splash in the summer of 2010 by releasing a 194-page report about its pet project to the FAA. It contains numerous rosy projections about future passenger and freight traffic demands meant to justify the airport’s construction.

Buried within its reams of statistics and turgid technical prose, however, was this telling passage on page 10: “The current economic downtown, the most serious since the Great Depression, is a challenge to the aviation industry.  . . . This forecast environment is precarious and it justifies caution in revisiting the assumptions and forecasts for an airport, particularly a new one.” No kidding!

What’s really “precarious,” though, is the state’s ethical position in using any means necessary to acquire private property for the initial build-out of an airport that may never be approved, let alone completed. And with Illinois billions of dollars in the red, it makes zero sense to throw hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars away on such a pathetically misguided boondoggle.

Yet that’s precisely what we’re doing. Ever since IDOT was given the power of eminent domain by the state in 2002, it’s been buying up land in the imaginary airport’s footprint as fast as an Illinois hog gulping his slops. As of July 2010, nearly $33 million have been spent acquiring 2,429 acres of land from (mostly) willing sellers.

Now, with the price of land bottoming out, IDOT is flexing its muscles to begin eminent domain proceedings against citizens with no interest in selling, like Willis and Vivian Bramstaedt, an elderly couple who had intended to retire on their Beecher property.

The Bramstaedts and others are in a real pickle: if they cave in to IDOT’s pressure to sell, they’re going to get far less for their property than they would’ve a few years ago. If they refuse to deal, they’ll have to wage a hopelessly expensive court fight against the state’s condemnation proceedings .

This situation is beyond grotesque. Surely the naked exercise of power in wresting land from law-abiding rural citizens against their will for a project of dubious merit is unjust. The fact that it is permissible under state law does not make it right.

Let’s call it for what it is, then: highway robbery.

This essay appeared as my regular monthly op-ed column in the Joliet Herald-News on 8 July 2010. It was the fourth in an ongoing series of columns on the controversy surrounding the proposed “South Suburban Airport” near the small town of Peotone in Will County, Illinois.

As of Dec. 31, 2010, the State continued to earmark millions of dollars for the purchase of land in the Peotone area, and IDOT has submitted more documents to the FAA for that agency’s review. The latter still had not approved the airport project.

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