While you were not looking, the state of Illinois gobbled up more land for a controversial airport project more than twenty years in the making. According to government records, the state has spent $38,600,610 on land acquisition for the project in 2014. The year’s purchases include Bult Field, a general aviation and corporate aviation airport near Monee.
NBC 5 Investigates has learned the total amount spent on the South Suburban Airport project so far, according to state records, is $86,279,555. That includes the purchase of 3600 acres out of the proposed 5800 acres needed for the project. The acquired land is in a section of Will County that includes parts of Peotone, Monee and Beecher.
Supporters said the proposed airport would serve a passenger service area of an estimated 2.3 million people by 2030.
Governor Pat Quinn has said the South Suburban Airport will be an “economic engine”. Thousands of construction jobs are expected to be created and a large work force would be needed after the airport begins operation.
“There’s a lot of momentum behind this project. It’s been around for a long time. But it’s a very important one for the state and we believe it’s a project whose time has come,” said Guy Tridgell, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Long-time property owners who are packing up to make room share mixed emotions.
Jimmie Clayton, 80, recently sold his Monee property to the state. He had lived in his house since 1967. He said he used the money to buy a home several miles away.
“I wanted to upgrade my house instead of selling it to the state,” Clayton said. “I don’t think I got enough for my house.”
Rocky Batterman’s property is also in the path of the airport project. He lives down the road in Peotone and said he is not selling just yet. He said the state needs to offer more for the property he’s owned since the mid-1980s. But Batterman said he is being threatened with imminent domain.
“We want to walk away with the same lifestyle we had,” Batterman said. “We’re not trying to get rich. Just move on.”
IDOT, which is tasked with acquiring land parcels for the project, said it negotiates with sellers.
“We believe the vast majority of the people have been pleased with the outcome,” Trigdell said.
The state of Illinois has spent $1.3 million on legal fees related to condemnation and $4.98 million on direct maintenance costs of the land its acquired. Tridgell noted most of the maintenance costs have been recouped by leasing the property, in many cases to the original land owners.
So how soon could construction begin? The state said as early as a few years from now.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it still needs to analyze the state’s master plan and perform an environmental analysis before it green lights construction.
The Illinois General Assembly passed Senate Bill 20 in the spring of 2013, which created a Public Private Partnership between the private sector and IDOT to build the South Suburban Airport.
“The decision of whether to build the airport or not will be driven by the business community,” said Will County Executive Lawrence Walsh. “The most knowledgeable people in the airport industry will help make this decision based on the facts and economics of this project.”
Several major airlines, including Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, have yet to express interest in using South Suburban Airport.
“Our position has not changed. We believe a third airport would divert financial resources from O’Hare and Midway, and we would not fly in or out of Peotone,” said United spokesperson Christen David.
Republican gubernatorial challenger Bruce Rauner’s campaign team also weighed in on the airport issue.
“Bruce believes any new airports must have enough demand to be self-sustaining, and not reduce economic activity at other airports in the region,” wrote Rauner spokesperson Lance Trover in an email to NBC 5 Investigates.
Anti-airport signs can still be seen along the roads in and around the proposed site.
The Beecher School District superintendent said he fears the district’s tax base will erode as a result of the properties that have been purchased by the state.
“Every dollar is valued and when you start losing revenue it will impact the classrooms eventually,” superintendent Jeff McCartney said.
However, IDOT said it provides funding to local taxing districts to offset the loss in local property taxes from the increase in state-owned, tax-exempt property while land is being acquired.
“We have paid Will County more than $800,000 to distribute to these taxing bodies since we began acquiring property,” Tridgell said.
IDOT insists it is building for the future and said the demand for a third Chicago airport is there. The agency points to a vendor forum in September attended by an airline and organizations with “strong international” backgrounds on major infrastructure projects.