NYT writer backs airport boondoggle (updated)

Since there isn't a ghost of a chance that the Times would ever publish a letter in its entirety written by me, I thought I would use my position as associate editor to respond to Bob Herbert's laughably ignorant call for another airport in the Chicago area to be located south of the city.

To briefly sum up Mr. Herbert's column, he believes that the jobs that would be created at the proposed airport near Peotone, Illinois would be just the ticket to get the economy moving on the terminally economically ill south side of Chicago. His fantasy airport would include minimal taxpayer financing, little chance for corrupt contract letting, little chance for political interference, and is just the thing to relieve traffic congestion at O'Hare.

My response:

To the Editor:

I want to congratulate Bob Herbert on his new job as Chief Shill and Water Carrier for Representative Jesse Jackson whose proposal to build an airport south of the city near Peotone, IL was highlighted in Mr. Herbert's column of March 13 ("Flying Blind in Chicago). I sincerely hope Mr. Herbert will have time to keep writing columns for your newspaper as he has given me endless hours of amusement with his deadpan comedic take on many issues and personalities. Rep. Jackson would very much like to be a senator and to have the august Mr. Herbert promoting the project he hopes to use to ride to Washington will no doubt assist him greatly when it comes time to campaign for the slot being vacated by Roland Burris in 2010 - and perhaps sooner if Mr. Burris can ever get his story straight about his contacts with our late lamented governor Rod Blagojevich.

As for Mr. Herbert's promoting the Peotone airport, I found several of his observations regarding the efficacy of such a project curious, if not shockingly ignorant. I realize that Mr. Herbert, living as he does in the New York City area, no doubt sees us here in far off Chicagoland as some exotic form of animal life. I can assure Mr. Herbert that such is not the case, that we all get up in the morning and put our pants on one leg at a time just as he does in New York -- that is, if they're still wearing pants there. We may be a little behind fashion wise out in the sticks so I wouldn't want to jump to any conclusions.

But Mr. Herbert made some claims about the proposed Peotone airport that I would like to address, namely:

It has long been known that a third airport is needed in the Chicago metropolitan area...

Mr. Herbert is correct. It has long been known by those in favor of buying up a stupendous amount of the richest, most fertile farmland in the world - 24,000 acres which is more than 3 times the size of O'Hare - for an airport that the FAA claims is not needed. It is also a well known fact that a third airport is needed if Jesse Jackson, Jr. is going to be elected Senator from Illinois. And it is well known among certain well connected Illinois businesses and politicians that we need another airport for continued graft and corruption.

It may shock Mr. Herbert and readers in New York, but Illinois does not feature the cleanest politics in its state and local government. Surprising as it may be, we have had some minor problems from time to time with the honesty and integrity of our politicians. Scientists studying this problem point to many of our pols secreting an adhesive substance on their fingers that money can't help but stick to - especially when that money belongs to the taxpayer. It is not a terminal illness but debilitating nonetheless as it gets in the way of good, clean government.

I'm sure Mr. Herbert was unaware of these facts when he wrote this:
The airport would be financed and built by two firms with vast airport experience: LCOR, which owns and operates International Terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport in New York, and SNC-Lavalin, which has financed and operates airports in Europe, Canada, South America and elsewhere.

Um...yes. But financing the actual construction of the airport is a small part of the cost involved. Current plans call for massive amounts of road building, infrastructure improvements, not to mention some kind of mass transit plan that would have to be implemented to get people from the city out to Peotone 40 miles away. 

Illinois pols are licking their chops at the prospect of so much loose cash to be spread around.

Then there's this bit of nonsense:

There are many advantages to this project, in addition to the private funding. The airport would be specifically designed to serve low-cost carriers that cannot afford to build and operate their own terminals. They would arrive and depart at “common-use” gates that are far more economical.

Another feature of the airport design is that it is “market driven,” meaning that it would be relatively small when it opened and could easily be expanded as demand increased.

Those "low cost carriers" are already using other airports in the region. And the idiocy of building a small airport 40 miles from downtown Chicago that could "easily be expanded" begs the question; why build infrastructure and roads for a major airport and then open a facility designed not to relieve O'Hare congestion but simply steal revenue and traffic from other small towns like Rockford, Champaign, or even Gary, Indiana which has just received FAA permission to build another runway?

The FAA is keen on expanding the airports in Milwaukee and Gary, rightly believing that this is the regional answer to O'Hare's problems. The airlines are against Peotone not because, as Herbert believes they "are not interested in seeing low-cost competition flying in and out of a spanking new airport, especially one with enormous growth potential..." but because they have crunched the numbers and know that future traffic will be down and there is no need to have an airport with "enormous growth potential." It is an utter fantasy to believe that Peotone would ever grow large enough to justify major carriers moving there.

Finally, Herbert is being too kind to some politicians when he says, "Simply stated, the politicians can’t get their act together."

Is he serious? Mayor Daley has his act together just fine and will oppose a third airport in Peotone to his last breath. It's no act, either. Daley and Jesse Jackson, Jr. hate each other with a passion and Hizzoner will not only do everything in his considerable power to deny him the Democratic nomination for Senator, but will fight any loss in revenue from O'Hare. Currently, there is an $8 passenger fee that streams into Daley's hands for everyone flying in and out of O'Hare.

There are also extraordinarily lucrative concessions at the airport -- food, shops, parking, limos, taxis, buses, and the motherlode that comes in from towing cars from in front of the terminal left by people who didn't believe the signs and helped their grandma with her bags anyway. These concessions represent not only cash, but marvelous opportunities to reward cronies -- cronies like Barack Obama's friend Tony Rezko who had a minority front for him so he could open restaurants in the terminals.

And Daley, who is expanding O'Hare to the tune of $15 billion and who is rubbing his hands together in anticipation of getting billions in stim money to help him finance it, will make it a cold day in hell before any other wasteful airport project gets in the way of funding his own albatross of an airport project.

Jesse Jackson, Jr. knows all of this -knows that he can claim that Peotone will set new standards for government cleanliness and incorruptible contracting all he wants, but in the end, the state will be stuck with a white elephant of an airport, sprawling in the middle of nowhere and the dirty politicians and their cronies will feast as they always feast on whatever taxpayer money is allocated for this boondoggle.  

If Mr. Herbert wants to kiss up to Rep. Jackson, that's his business. But perhaps he should learn a little of Illinois politics before he spouts off about things of which he knows little or nothing.

Thomas Lifson adds:

Peotone would become a costly white elephant, a multi-billion dollar waste of taxpayer money. Canada wasted billions of dollars building Mirabel Airport far away from town, and ended-up making Toronto the premier international gateway to Canada, and domestic hub. Airlines and passengers shunned Mirabel, and Montreal authorities insanely separated international flights from domestic feeder traffic, which continued to use Dorval Airport, close-in and a reasonable cab ride from town. Buoyed by the Montreal Olympics, many international airlines served Mirabel at one time or another, but they trickled away, until the government admitted the blunder and allowed international flights back into Dorval.

Mirabel terminal

Today, Mirabel features an empty terminal that was hailed as an architectural showpiece when it opened.  There was talk of turning it into a theme park, but that is opbviously not going to happen in today's economy. A few cargo flights still use Mirabel, but its sorry history not only wasted billiions, it seriously and permanently harmed Montreal's standing as an airline hub. Last year, Dorval Airport (renamed after Pierre Elliot Trudeau) boarded 12.4 million passengers, compared to Toronto Lester B. Pearson Airport's 32.3 million. If you are a Montrealer and want a nonstop to Dubai, Tokyo, or Hong Kong, among many other destinations, you change planes in Toronto, a complete reversal of the situation prior to Mirabel's completion.

Imagine what will happen if pressure is put on United and Amercian to transfer some of their operations to Petone? That can only harm Chicago's status as an airline hub, diminishing connecting opportunities at O'Hare, and saddling the legacy carriers with extra costs.
Gary Airport
If there is need for another low cost airport in metro Chicago, Gary Airport is expanding, is hungry for airlines, and is close to a transit line into downtown Chicago. The airport has plans for a 43-gate terminal, if money can be found, and is improving its 7,000 ft runway. It's landing fees are very low. The adjacent aerial photo shows how close it is to downtown.

Herbert doesn't even bother considering the downsides. By the way, surely there are environmental concerns, aren't there? Is there any big project anywhere in America that greenies don't have concerns about?