The city of Chicago wants to build an airport just east of Lake Calumet, obliterating 9,360 homes and 47 businesses, and disturbing seven Illinois natural areas and an unknown number of toxic waste dumps. And yet, compared to the furor stimulated by the 1968 “airport in the lake” proposal, or the World’s Fair proposal in the early 1980s, nobody north of 95th Street seems all that concerned.
This general lack of interest is odd, because transportation has always been the soul of this city. Chicago is what it is–and not Des Moines or Benton Harbor–because for the past 143 years it has been the center of the North American web. Starting with the I & M Canal, which connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi basin (1848), and continuing with the railroads (1850s), the Sanitary and Ship Canal (1901), the highways, the interstates, and the airports, the routes of each new mode of transportation have paralleled the others, keeping Chicago the hub.
Until last year, the city had opposed federal and suburban efforts to build a third airport, saying that O’Hare and Midway were enough. But on February 15, 1990, Mayor Daley dramatically reversed position, declaring that Chicago after all does need a third airport to keep up with the Atlantas and the Denvers, and that it should be located within the city limits (an idea not voiced before in the 22-year history of third-airport proposals). He also released a two-inch-thick Lake Calumet Airport Feasibility Study, prepared by six consulting firms during the previous seven months.
Not surprisingly, this preliminary study shows signs of haste and incompleteness, but it remains the city’s most authoritative statement in favor of a Lake Calumet airport. From its pages, we learn that the proposed airport would be phased in from 1995 to 2020, and ultimately would occupy 9,400 acres south and east of 103rd Street and Stony Island. (By comparison, O’Hare takes up 7,700 acres.) It would obliterate the neigborhoods of South Deering and Hegewisch (but spare East Side), the suburb of Burnham, and parts of Calumet City and Hammond, Indiana. It would wipe out the Thomas J. O’Brien Lock and Dam on the Calumet River; the William W. Powers Conservation Area (most of Wolf Lake); more than 100 miles of railroad tracks carrying more than 100 trains a day, including the South Shore commuter line; and the recently retooled Ford factory at 12600 S. Torrence (3,200 employees). Included within the proposed airport’s boundaries are at least 51 “waste disposal sites” and their witches’ brew of contents, legal and otherwise, including the “twin peaks” along the Calumet Expressway–landfills known as CID numbers one and two; and breeding sites for eight kinds of birds and nine kinds of plants listed by the state of Illinois as rare, endangered, or threatened species. More than six miles of the Calumet River system would be rerouted.
In the months following February 15, Daley won two essential political victories for his airport. First, he got Chicago representatives put on the policy committee of the Illinois-Indiana Regional Airport Program, which will make the final decision on the new airport, and got the Lake Calumet site added to the four others under consideration (Gary Airport in Indiana, and three far-south rural sites near Peotone, Beecher, and Kankakee). These late changes were made official in a memorandum issued July 15 and signed by Daley, James Thompson, and Indiana governor Evan Bayh. Daley’s second coup came when Congress passed a “ticket tax” (Passenger Facility Charge)–giving Chicago an advantage over its four rivals, since now the city could tap revenues from O’Hare and Midway to build a new airport.
The response: except for boosters and residents of the area, a vast silence. Loop-based public-interest groups have been quiet. “All Chicago was outrageable about putting an airport in the lake,” explains Alexander Polikoff, executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, but he doubts that is true of the southeast side. And the metropolitan dailies have mostly contented themselves with parroting the hasty and flawed “feasibility study” on which the Lake Calumet airport idea is based.
By the time people start seriously weighing the pros and cons of the Lake Calumet airport, it may have become, like President Bush’s Persian Gulf war, a fait accompli, too big to change or stop.
It’s not too late yet. Here are half a dozen questions begging to be answered and a few stabs at answering them. Since the debate has barely begun, the best we can do is show that the official version ain’t the only one.
1. Do we need it?
In 1989, about 33 million people boarded airplanes at O’Hare and Midway. According to the most recent published report on Chicago air travel–the “Chicago Airport Capacity Study” (CACS) prepared by KPMG Peat Marwick in August 1988 for the Illinois Department of Transportation–by 2020 that figure will double to 65 million passengers. In other words, over the next 30 years a million more people will fly out of Chicago every year, and to accommodate that demand we need another airport.
There are reasons to wonder about this figure of 65 million. The CACS simply announces it ex cathedra as “the consensus judgment of the FAA, the City of Chicago, and Peat Marwick.” An impressive bunch to argue with–but on the other hand, as Frank Spencer of Northwestern University’s Transportation Center observes, “The people doing forecasting in the past few years are primarily those with built-in interests, which would tend to overstate increasing demand.” Albert Ettinger, a Chicago attorney and Sierra Club member who looked into the question, describes the CACS as “the usual kind of study, in which they assume that the future will be like the past and conclude that therefore we will have more of the same.”
But will the future be like the past? If oil prices continue to drive up ticket prices, if airline deregulation has done all it can to lower them, if teleconferencing becomes a major alternative to tedious business travel, might air travel level off, or even diminish?
Electric utilities used to forecast demand for electricity by the same method of extrapolation, and they built new power plants accordingly. But during the 1970s it turned out that as the cost of electricity rose, people did not go on using ever more of it, and the utilities overbuilt at great expense. That surprise is still inducing ulcers in utility shareholders and managers today. The same thing might happen in airline travel, leaving Chicago with the airport equivalent of a giant, expensive, unused power plant.
It also might not. Margery al Chalabi, whose al Chalabi Group is preparing demand forecasts as a consultant to the Illinois-Indiana Regional Airport Program, points out that in the past 20 years the propensity to fly has increased, as has the population and that fraction of the population with enough money to do so.
Of course, the push for a third airport is driven more by fear than by economics. “It is a competitive world in which we live,” pontificated the pro-airport South Metro Airport Commission in its 1988 response to the CACS. “No one, no city, no other airport or airline, is waiting for Chicago to get its act together on a third airport. ‘They’ could not care less. In fact, they would enjoy nothing more than Chicago selecting for itself a second class future in commercial aviation. That is what will happen if we pause . . .” (More recently, FAA administrator Admiral James Busey told the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry that Chicago is already losing connecting flights and could lose 100,000 of them in five years.)
Pausing, of course, is exactly what the Sierra Club’s Ettinger has in mind. What looks like a godsend to south suburban airport boosters looks like more urban sprawl to him. “Do we want to build a major hub site to attract lovely businesses like we have around O’Hare? Or would people in northeastern Illinois be better off with all this hubbing going on in Colorado or north Texas instead?”
Stepping back from the specifics for a moment, there’s a more philosophical reason to be cautious about a third airport. Chicago’s tale of transportation triumph is also a story of extreme volatility, observes economist Arthur Lyons of the Loop-based Center for Economic Policy Analysis. Just within Chicago’s lifetime, it has seen at least three shifts–from canals to railroads to highways to airlines, often leaving major investments behind. (Would Union Station take up a full square city block if it had been built for today’s Amtrak riders?)
“It is impossible to say what will happen between now and 2020, when the proposed new airport would become fully operational,” wrote Lyons in a 1988 report he did for the state. “Futuristic authors paint pictures of computer guided personal vehicles following preset routes to far cities, with no attention from passengers. Less imaginatively, one might anticipate technology breakthroughs that could bring personal airplanes into the reach of people whose grandparents struggled to afford a car. . . . The point is straightforward: Given the rate of revolutionary developments in transportation during recent centuries, it would seem very risky indeed to commit large sums of public money to any venture whose financial success depends on extrapolating present trends more than 30 years into the future.”
Lyons doesn’t recommend against building a new airport. But given the uncertainties, he argues that a new airport should pay its own way through revenue bonds and user fees, not taxes. “Financing mechanisms should guarantee that the public sector is not left holding the bag, while private investors can flee with their money, if currently unforeseen breakthroughs make the proposed airport unnecessary or obsolete before it can pay off.”
2. Could high-speed trains do the job better?
On September 18, the Federal Aviation Administration held what it called an “environmental scoping meeting” on the Lake Calumet airport at the Mann Park field house in Hegewisch. The FAA is required to hold one hearing at which it listens to, transcribes, and formally responds to public testimony on a plan. Although nobody said so at the time, this was and apparently will be the only such meeting on the Lake Calumet site. Not surprisingly, since according to the mayor’s plan Hegewisch would become a runway, most speakers were opposed (the audience lustily booed Daley’s representative), but the opponents took pains to offer alternatives other than the obvious “Put it somewhere else.” Several speakers suggested high-speed rail as an alternative, as did the Chicago chapter of the Sierra Club in a statement issued a few days later.
The idea is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In April 1989, a six-person team from Argonne National Laboratory published a lengthy report suggesting that high-speed “magnetic levitation” trains could reasonably “be examined as a system for heavily traveled corridors and as an alternative to major airport construction.” These trains, which travel up to 300 miles per hour, could be used for trips of 100 to 600 miles, the range in which airplanes are least efficient.
Unfortunately, according to Merrill Travis, railroad bureau chief at the state Department of Transportation, the cost of an entire high-speed rail system big enough to replace an airport is astronomically higher than the cost of a new airport. Connecting O’Hare by high-speed rail to Saint Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee would cost three to ten times as much as a new airport and it would only reduce O’Hare’s current average daily arrivals by 14 percent.
Travis is guardedly optimistic about the future of high-speed trains nonetheless. He says his agency is studying possible rail corridors, “not . . . in the hope of avoiding the need for a third airport, but rather in the hope that a fourth and fifth Chicago airport are not needed in the future.”
3. Isn’t the Lake Calumet area too polluted?
Anyone who knows where Lake Calumet is–about three miles east of 115th and State–probably knows at least one other thing about that area: that it’s grossly polluted. Once an industrial center and now a landfill center, the southeast side has been absorbing industrial waste since at least 1869. It also contains so much open, undeveloped space that the Tenth Ward, though its population is about the same as that of each of the other 49, is by far the city’s largest in area.
This pollution, oddly enough, is Daley’s strongest selling point: the Lake Calumet airport is a twofer. Along with improved transportation, we’d also get a comprehensive cleanup of the nastiest part of the city. Furthermore, says Daley, it is the area’s only hope: “The airport is the only project which would generate the funds to do what needs to be done.”
This may well be true, although perhaps the city shouldn’t need an airport to clean up its toxic waste. Former Illinois EPA director Richard Carlson proposed an Environmental Enhancement District for the southeast side in 1987, to be funded by assessments on polluters; the idea went nowhere. A decade’s agitation by Robert Ginsburg, formerly research director of Citizens for a Better Environment, eventually got the southeast side onto some agendas, but not very high up. Ginsburg was encouraged enough, however, to dispute Daley’s contention: “I’m not convinced that you couldn’t, 20 to 30 years down the road, actually have good things happening down there,” he says. “Water access will be at a premium then. It’s not a foregone conclusion that nothing would have happened. But nothing else will happen as long as this is pending.”
Daley’s people point out that a Lake Calumet airport will save farmland, and prevent the new urban sprawl that would ensue if one of the “greenfield” sites farther south–near Peotone, Beecher, or Kankakee–were chosen. “Recycling an industrial area like Lake Calumet for an airport is environmentally sound,” wrote corporation counsel Kelly Welsh in a statement to the FAA. “It minimizes damage to the environment in rural areas, avoids depletion of rich agricultural resources, and enhances the environment in the old urban, industrial area through the clean-up incident to airport development.” Or, in the rather more colorful language in the mayor’s four-page newsletter “Airport Update,” “Residents in nearby neighborhoods will find the air fresher, the soil cleaner, and the open space greener.”
These promises are not backed up by the two-inch-thick Lake Calumet Airport Feasibility Study issued in February 1990:
The Daley administration is relatively unconcerned about the possibility of contaminated groundwater seeping out into Lake Michigan. “My understanding,” says mayoral assistant Robert Repel, “is that by the time it got out to the [city water intake] cribs, it’d be so dissipated there would be no risk.” But Great Lakes pollution shows up first, of course, not in the water itself but concentrated in the bodies of fish and waterfowl.
Where the removed stuff would go is unclear, and so is the budget: the $224 million allocated for “waste remediation” is based on the assumptions that contamination extends to an average of only two feet deep and that the average cleanup cost per acre is $200,000. But the Illinois EPA’s ongoing cleanup at the 19-acre Paxton Lagoons, near 122nd and Paxton, has cost $6 million (over $315,000 per acre) plus a yet-to-be-negotiated amount, and has gone as deep as 12 feet. Since each site is different and contains different (and often unknown) chemicals, and since we probably haven’t found them all, the total cost could be much greater.
Could it be great enough to price the airport plan out of consideration? Not likely, says Repel: $224 million is only a small piece of the airport’s total projected cost of $5 billion. Even if it doubled or tripled, that $5 billion includes a 30 percent “contingency” fund of $1.14 billion. Also, the airport’s financial plan only includes ticket-tax revenues from O’Hare and Midway travelers up until 2010. “If we needed to, we could go on using them. It’s like having another deep bucket of money.”
The Daley contingent’s response to criticism of this kind is that the feasibility study is not a plan but an outline: it’s not fair to critique it as if it were a detailed blueprint for a new airport–it’s just a first cut, to see if the idea would work at all.
This point may have helped quiet media and public-interest people. But it’s certainly fair to hold the study to the same standard as the better-publicized promises being made; it’s fair to question whether it does show feasibility; and it’s fair to treat all parts of it equally. As Rothwell C. “Bud” Polk, executive director of a local business group, the Calumet Area Industrial Commission, complained at the Chicago State meeting, “When it’s a sales tool [promising 200,000 new jobs, for instance], it’s firm. But when it’s questioned, then it’s only a concept.”
4. What about the area’s ecological value?
It’s the paradox of the southeast side that its ecological value is as important a factor in the airport debate as its pollution. Despite years of careless waste disposal, the wetlands east of Lake Calumet still harbor an astonishing variety and number of migrating and nesting birds.
Boosters of the Lake Calumet site say the wetlands aren’t all that great now and will get worse if left alone. There is some truth in this, but it doesn’t justify corporation counsel Welsh’s statement supporting Lake Calumet over greenfield sites to the south: “A natural wetland in a clean rural area may have much greater habitat value and potential for natural improvement than one inadvertently created among slag heaps and landfills and thereafter left to fend for itself.”
Of course, the Calumet-area wetlands were there aeons before any slag heaps. And Welsh’s description of them is overly negative (ask any southeast-side birdwatcher), just as the feasibility study, which envisions those same wetlands surviving in between runways, is overly optimistic. (The feasibility study estimates that only 237 acres of wetlands would be damaged; UIC’s James Landing argues that all 659 acres within the airport boundaries “would be rendered ecologically useless.”)
The feasibility study doesn’t discuss natural features other than wetlands–probably because wetlands are subject to federal protection–but it does admit that “at least twelve bird species, a rookery, two plant species and eight of the prairie-type natural areas in the vicinity of Burnham and Calumet City could be impacted.”
You can get a somewhat less antiseptic rendering of these facts from George Johnson, a full-time volunteer for the Nature Conservancy and its “regional steward” for southern Cook and northern Will counties. “There are actually seven sites on the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory [out of a total of 601] that will be severely impacted,” and three of them–Sand Ridge Prairie, Thornton Fractional High School Prairie, and Powderhorn Marsh and Prairie–are being well preserved and managed. “They will not degrade,” says Johnson, “unless the Little Calumet River is rerouted”–as the airport plan requires.
What about building replacements elsewhere? Says Johnson, “There is not enough money on earth to move Powderhorn Prairie [which would go under a runway] or re-create the Sand Ridge hydrology elsewhere.” Johnson is gathering lists of plant and bird species, not so much with a view to stopping the airport as making sure that the suits downtown know exactly what they’re doing: “Hey, buddy,” he says, “when you talk about destroying Powderhorn, you’re destroying Yosemite-quality life systems. It’s a kind of area there’s very little of in the world.
“Our position is–go ahead, but know what you’ve done, know that you’ve destroyed irreplaceable areas.”
5. Will an airport really benefit the southeast side?
Daley’s early rhetoric about the southeast side’s being “the heart of the rust belt” offended some of the people who live there. Hegewisch activist Virginia Cap protested that hers “is not a depressed area, it is a vital and hardworking community.” Indeed, Torrence Avenue isn’t anything like the main street of a ghost town.
Nor is the outraged response from CALCA (Citizens Against the Lake Calumet Airport) and SOS (Save Our Suburbs) the response of a truly depressed area, where most would be relieved to be able to sell and get out. Joyce Bischoff, a legal secretary who has lived in South Deering, Hegewisch, and Burnham–all slated to go–believes the city spokespersons were surprised at the vigorous objections. And she doesn’t put much stock in the Daley administration’s claims that it cares about displaced residents and communities: “If they really wanted our input, why didn’t they ask us before they spent a million dollars on a secret study? Our destruction was being planned, and we didn’t know it. I believe our civil rights have been violated.”
Still, compared to the not-so-distant past, when the southeast side was an international industrial center, times are definitely hard. James Fitch, chairman of the board of the South Chicago Bank and president of the Southeast Chicago Development Commission (“Sedcom”), points out that nearly half the jobs in southeast-side zip codes 60617 and 60628 have disappeared since 1979. A state enterprise zone didn’t help. Neither did a World’s Fair, a cargo airport, or a resource recovery plant, none of which got beyond the talking stage.
According to the feasibility study, the Lake Calumet airport would displace only about 9,000 workers, and it would create new jobs for 206,400. But here again, the study understates the costs and overstates the benefits. The “200,000 jobs”–a figure much repeated by the mayor–is the sum of an estimated 40,800 airport employees, plus another 40,800 employed at businesses directly dependent on the airport, plus 124,800 more people working to produce supplies and services for the first two groups. But the 9,000 lost jobs don’t include suppliers or workers providing services to Ford, LTV, or the other 45 businesses found in the area.
So the deck is already stacked, and the 200,000-jobs figure itself is pretty soft. For instance: some would not be new jobs, but merely jobs relocated from O’Hare or Midway. How many? A little-quoted appendix to the feasibility study found that Lake Calumet would generate only 54,400 more jobs than would building nothing. Another point: the feasibility study fails to consider “opportunity costs”–that is, how many jobs might be created if the resources directed to an airport were used in some other way instead. At least the study does state plainly that the airport-induced jobs will occur throughout the Chicago metropolitan area; the mayor’s “Airport Update” falsely implies that all “200,000” would be concentrated in the Calumet area.
One point in favor of the Lake Calumet location is that it would be closer to the people who need jobs than would sites farther south. But the question remains, would the new jobs match the skills of that work force? And what will they do during the 10 or 20 years it takes to build the airport? Airport study consultant Margery al Chalabi suggests, rather elliptically, “The airport could be built in ten years. . . . I hope that by then we’ll have people training for the types of jobs that are growing.”
Southeast-side businesses have a similar concern. Bud Polk of the Calumet Area Industrial Commission points out that the usual formula, under which factory owners get “fair market value” for their properties, would devastate the industries in the Calumet area. “Many of our industrial facilities are old and serviceable, but fully depreciated. Also, many are one-of-a-kind, uniquely designed with cranes and other structures built in. You can’t go out and buy an equivalent on the open market, yet “fair market value’ wouldn’t begin to touch the costs of new construction. . . . Industry needs full replacement cost.”
Lynne Cunningham, Polk’s counterpart at the Southeast Chicago Development Commission, says there are few precedents for that kind of compensation. But “the magnitude of this project is so huge that even if there were no precedent, it gives people an opportunity to talk and organize about a lot of new issues.” Full replacement cost for displaced businesses could really jack up the feasibility study’s $254 million budget for acquiring “occupied industrial land.”
Chicago is one of the very few U.S. cities with enough space that it could even consider putting a new airport within its boundaries; but even so, the Suburban O’Hare Commission thinks the southeast side is too crowded. This northwest-suburban group supports a third airport as an alternative to expansion at O’Hare, but argues that the Lake Calumet site would create the same noise problems that have made its members miserable. The Lake Calumet site, with 9,400 acres, would be bigger than O’Hare’s 7,700 acres, but the commission says that’s still too small. It is indeed much smaller than the amount of land being acquired for airports outside Denver (34,000 acres) and Dallas-Fort Worth (28,000 acres). It’s not that the airport itself needs that much room, it’s the noise. “The people who are going to be displaced will be the lucky ones,” says SOC executive director Kathy Lane, “because the rest will have what we have here.”
Robert Repel, Mayor Daley’s administrative assistant, contends that the airport need not be that large, as long as the city can control development beyond the airport boundaries. The O’Hare noise problem grew up, he says, largely because adjacent suburbs, in quest of larger tax bases, allowed residential development nearby. Of course, this strategy–controlling land use rather than owning surrounding land–implies that Chicago could oversee zoning practices in the towns of Riverdale, Dolton, South Holland, and Lansing, not to mention the Indiana cities of Hammond, East Chicago, and Munster.
6. Will it fly anyway?
Of course, this is not the first time a mayor named Daley has proposed building an airport in an unexpected place. In 1968, Richard J. Daley proposed that an airport be built in Lake Michigan. The idea (which migrated south from off 12th Street to 31st Street, and finally to 55th Street) eventually died of environmentalist outrage and impracticality. Even the city’s determination, fed by an undying desire to control the airport and the surrounding lucrative development, couldn’t save it. Some environmentalists see a development coalition like that of 1968 assembling to back Richard M. Daley’s Lake Calumet site. “The Chicago government is less committed to a major airport than it is to a project that funnels $5 billion into the city,” said UIC’s James Landing at Chicago State. “It is my belief that any proposal, regardless of its merit, would be supported by the government of Chicago if it involved such huge sums of money.” And sure enough, on December 3 the Sun-Times’s Jerry Davis reported that now that the real estate market is saturated, “the fallback position for developers stymied by the inability to finance new buildings may be the numerous city projects that are moving along”–foremost among them the airport.
Another twist: As soon as Daley made his initial announcement of the site, journalists and political junkies speculated that he didn’t really intend to build an airport at Lake Calumet at all, that it was simply a bargaining chip to give up in order to get Chicago some power over an airport built in the suburbs. No one can prove this false, but it hardly matters: if the bargaining chip is to be worth anything, it has to look like the real thing.
As far as politics goes, Daley is batting a thousand. Getting into the site-selection process and getting the ticket tax passed were two key strategic moves. “There’s been so much publicity about these coups,” complains Kathy Lane, “that people in the press seem to think the Lake Calumet airport is a done deal. Chicago is trying to win this contest politically and in the PR arena, I believe, because they know, technically and scientifically, the site doesn’t have a prayer.”
A few stumbling blocks remain. Judging from the November advisory referenda in the Tenth Ward and in Calumet City (combined, 7,930 for, 12,426 against), affected residents oppose the idea, but perhaps not overwhelmingly. (The opponents are better organized and more vocal.) The southeast-side business community, as represented by the South Chicago Development Commission and the Calumet Area Industrial Commission, has offered only the most lukewarm support. Representatives of both business groups testified at the hearing in Hegewisch, saying in essence that the Lake Calumet airport would be a good idea if, and if, and if, and if–adding so many ifs that the endorsement, if that’s what it was, soon cooled almost to absolute zero. Both groups will soon be issuing their own reports on the concept.
And TAMS Consultants, working for the Illinois-Indiana Regional Airport Program, will present findings on the five possible locations and many technical issues next October. “Will they recommend a site?” wonders the Suburban O’Hare Commission’s Lane. “If the consultants make no recommendation, then [the final decision] is totally political”–and then, as she well knows, anything could happen. (Just for starters, would the Indiana representatives vote for Lake Calumet if it meant that Chicago would stop sending its garbage there?)
Lane’s question has a curious answer. Until Chicago got into the act, the bistate program’s technical consultants were supposed to recommend a particular site, based on their studies. But the July 15, 1990, “memorandum of understanding” dealing Daley in changed that. Now, the consultants will not make a specific recommendation. They are asked to present only a comprehensive “site selection matrix” of pros and cons for each location.
Two of Daley’s strongest arguments have always been that the Lake Calumet site would attract far more travelers than the more remote far-south locations, and that only Chicago has the financial muscle–i.e., other airports from which to extract ticket-tax funds–to actually build the thing. “I think that today, financial feasibility is more and more critical,” said Daley assistant Robert Repel recently. “I don’t see the General Assembly raising taxes to build an airport at a time when there are so many other pressing needs. Whatever happens to the bistate policy, we’re committed to this site.”
Does that mean the city would go ahead with a Lake Calumet airport even if it were not chosen by the bistate group? “I don’t want to get into answering hypothetical questions. We think our site is going to be chosen.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.