Thursday, August 31, 2023

US DOT Secretary visits Gary/Chicago International Airport

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg returned to his Indiana roots Wednesday to visit the Gary/Chicago International Airport where he remarked about the future of the facility. 

This is music to my ears, as I've been an advocate of the Gary airport for the past 30 years. I've long felt that it just makes sense to improve an existing airport in an urban area close to Chicago, rather than build a brand new airport far, far away from where anyone wants to go.

Oh, I know, the State of Illinois' latest iteration of Chicago's Third Airport is to settle for a cargo airport at Peotone, rather than the sprawling 7-square-mile rival to O'Hare International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world, which is what they really wanted. 

Illinois' flawed plan for a simply wrong-headed project has never received the support necessary, financial or otherwise, to actually lift the thing off the ground. 

I remember when studies were performed back in the 1990's in search of a perfect location; there was a no-build option for the project, but only for a short time. It was never taken seriously by airport advocates, so they simply dismissed it. 

A long, long time ago

The project was actually first proposed in 1968 by three area chambers of commerce but accomplished little. It was resurrected in 1985, in the Illinois legislature as a means to bring economic vitality to the south suburbs. 

A small contingency of south suburban officials are all that ever really took the project seriously. Even the airlines balked at a new airport. And despite millions of dollars spent trying to make it happen, there has never been a proven need for it.

That isn't for a lack of trying however. Illinois transportation officials and south suburban leaders would try anything to bring back the economically-depressed southern suburbs, trying everything to get the airport to fly. They made it central in planning discussions, proposed economic opportunities with the airport front and center. But they never really looked at what was necessary in the corn, soy, and wheat fields, along the tar and chip roads, and working farm economy of eastern Will County.

Conversely, the Gary/Chicago Airport has enjoyed support of presidents, mayors, governors, and members of the public who recognized a real need to revitalize this airport and this region of the country. For many years, the State of Indiana and City of Chicago have been doing just that. 

Now, add the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the Biden-Harris Administration to offer their support as well. 

"And I want to lift up the story of Gary because this is a community that kept the fires lit, that literally kept the furnaces going to supply the tens of thousands - tens of millions - of tons of steel that this country needed…" Buttigieg said, likening the viability of the airport to the once-heralded steel industry that actually built the region. 

He added that the federal government wants to make sure that there will be boom times again. 

"We've made new investments to build that heavy air cargo apron and logistics center here at Gary/Chicago Airport," Buttigieg added.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Gary’s airport received a total of $8 million in federal community project funds in 2022 and 2023, with the money going toward a specialized fire truck, snow removal equipment, a heavy air cargo logistics apron and a new sanitary sewer for the cargo center. The airport has requested another $3.5 million in federal funds for 2024, which would help further expand its cargo operations, airport executive director Dan Vicari said.

When I first learned that Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana was named Transportation Secretary, and that President Joe Biden got a sweeping infrastructure bill through the Congress and signed it into law, I wondered how this would affect the third airport debacle. 

This is what I had hoped, that funds would flow to Gary which has been steadfast in its quest to serve the aviation needs in the region. So far, the federal government barely recognizes the Peotone project.

Peotone does not now nor has it ever had aviation needs. And it is time to pull the plug on the project.


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