CHICAGO – Emboldened by his primary election victory, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is pushing past his critics to try to get construction started on a third Chicago-area airport that has been talked about for decades.
Declaring that "the time for talk is over," Jackson said he would lead a groundbreaking ceremony at the site in a month, despite the opposition to his plans from officials in the southern suburb that would be home to the small airport. Will County officials, who believe they should control the airport, responded Thursday by saying the congressman's plans are flawed and his airport commission does not own the land or have legal authority to do any work at the site.
It's the latest skirmish in a battle for control of an airport that could create thousands of jobs and help ease the economic struggles of Chicago's south suburbs. The one-terminal, one-runway airport near the community of Peotone also could help take pressure off Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the second busiest in the nation and a major hub where delays ripple across the country.
During his Tuesday night victory speech, Jackson said he was letting Gov. Pat Quinn know a "people's groundbreaking" would be held at the site April 21 to get construction started.
"We are going to move earth, move dirt and begin the process of getting this airport built," he said.
The congressman clarified Thursday that the groundbreaking would be ceremonial as he has yet to win a deal with Quinn to lease the land.
The project has been beset over the years by arguments over where to build the airport, opposition from major airlines and – most recently – a battle over who would control it. Jackson's Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission, a grouping of 21 municipal governments in the Chicago area, is seeking the go-ahead from Quinn and says it has lined up $700 million in private funds and two developers.
Officials in Will County also want control and have been pressuring Quinn to stop talks with Jackson's commission. Instead, they want the state legislature to create a governing airport authority led by the county that would have clear powers to develop, finance and operate the airport.
The county board has accused Jackson's commission of violating Illinois' procurement law in choosing developers SNC-Lavalin of Canada and LCOR.
"Congressman Jackson seems to build some kind of fantasy world and now he thinks he's going to go sprinkle some dirt around like magic dust and it becomes a reality," Will County Board Chairman Jim Moustis said. "ALNAC has no authority to do anything. So the airport is not congressman Jackson's."
The governor's office said Thursday it was trying to forge a compromise.
"Our goal is to get it done as quickly as possible, and we're working hard to resolve outstanding issues with everyone at the table," Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said.
Meanwhile, the governor's office is working to get Federal Aviation Administration approval and buy additional land.
Aaron Quick, a consultant on the airport for Will County, said it is too early to talk about breaking ground and any construction is at least three years away under the most optimistic forecast. The state has purchased a little over half the land for the initial 5,200-acre footprint, the dispute over a governing body is unresolved, and environmental approvals will be needed once a master plan is finished, he said.
"There is no chance that they are going to be breaking ground on April 21," Quick said. "I'm not sure what he's up to."