At some point in the next year, Gov. Bruce Rauner will decide if Illinois has enough loose change to build a $1.2 billion airport in Peotone.
If you have never been to Peotone in Will County, let me suggest it is somewhere very close to nowhere. If Peotone is not nowhere, you certainly can see nowhere just over the next hill.
This airport is a massive public construction project 45 miles downwind from Chicago, and it’s looking for any reason to exist.
The debate has been spirited enough that even its most ardent backers at the Illinois Department of Transportation have retrenched the dirt-turning launch back to 2018.
But we are begging the more compelling question.
If the Chicago area actually needed a nearby airport to supplement freight service and provide passenger overflow relief, why not use an airport that already exists? How about one that sits as a launching pad on the shores of Lake Michigan? I have one in mind that serves as home for 50 corporate jets and launches 50,000 flights a year, 180 a day, and pumps 3 million gallons of fuel. More Illinois international flights originate at this airport than any outside of O’Hare.
These airport’s assets support 700 jobs with a total payroll of $33 million and a total economic output of $130 million.
It costs taxpayers nothing. NOTHING. The budget is the income from paying customers.
There might not be another American airport that can match that frugality.
I, of course, am referring to Waukegan National Airport.
With about $300 million in structural improvements, the existing Waukegan site would prove a better airport than Peotone ever would at far less cost.
In fact, if Waukegan’s 6,000-foot main runway were expanded to 7,000 feet – there’s a proposal that enunciates that goal – National would be more useful for big passenger jets than Midway.
The limit is money, and the need to build the new runway over Green Bay Road using a road underpass.
In truth, former Gov. Pat Quinn had eyes (and big bucks) only for Will County because he needed the votes that money would solidify. He still lost.
But corporate customers have always favored Waukegan National over competitors. Service is superior. Prices are low. Rail and Interstate connections to the Loop make executive trips as easy as they would ever be to Peotone.
But Waukegan National might be a hidden jewel that no one — not even local officials responsible for it – envisions on a bigger stage.
Whatever the future might hold, National has an earned pedigree.
DB Aviation at Waukegan ferried former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
Everything about Waukegan National – did you know it was National? — is major league except that it’s all but invisible to the people of Waukegan and perhaps even state government.
The seven-member Harbor Board that manages the airport is working on a long- range master plan.
The airport may have been a quaint general aviation pit stop 60 years ago, but National has grown up. Maybe it’s time to let someone in Springfield know that.