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Why Chicago Is Spending Millions on the Gary Airport

Years ago, Mayor Daley offered to shell out about a million and a half bucks a year to the Gary/Chicago International Airport to keep the state from taking control of O’Hare and Midway. Years later, the subsidy still exists.

Gary Indiana airport

 

In case you missed it, NBC Chicago had an interesting report on Chicago’s subsidies towards the Gary/Chicago “International” Airport:

While the airport gets substantial funding from the City of Gary, the State of Indiana and the federal government, it gets additional millions of dollars every year from the City of Chicago – more than $3.6 million dollars since the beginning of 2011 alone, financial documents reveal. Since 1995, Chicago has sent a total of more than $26 million to help operate the Gary airport.

It has one regular flight, from Gary to Sanford, Florida (when the carrier decides it’s profitable to run it), occasional charter flights, and a handful of corporate jets.

[Update: I spoke with a representative of the Metropolitan Planning Council, mentioned below, who told me that the MPC didn’t endorse the Peotone airport plan back then. They did endorse a regional authority more generally.]

So why does the subsidy exist? Well, remember the Peotone airport?

While the Peotone airport may have seemed dead on arrival when first proposed, and while it has certainly been on life support over the years, it has been endorsed by Governors Edgar and Ryan, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago and its Metropolis 2020 program, the Metropolitan Planning Council, the editorial pages of the Tribune and the Sun-Times-in short, every civic planning interest except one: Richard M. Daley.

[snip]

As the FAA ponders its decision, others are left to try to fathom Daley’s position, which has been all over the map. After his proposed Lake Calumet airport was rejected by the state senate in 1992, the mayor decided the region no longer needed a third major airport, and he focused on solving the region’s airport congestion by investing in O’Hare and Midway. In 1995, to stave off a Republican proposal to form a state or regional airport authority that would include Peotone airport, Daley secretly negotiated a pact with officials at the airport in Gary, Indiana, sending millions of dollars in Chicago money to build up that facility. (Today it is known as the Gary-Chicago International Airport; in March, the FAA approved a $90-million expansion there.) Because the pact placed Chicago’s airports under a bi-state agency, they were no longer susceptible to any new state or regional authority.

Daley, at the time, said that the state GOP wanted to lock Midway and O’Hare into a state-run regional authority so it could siphon passenger tax revenues (at the time $95 million a year) towards building a Peotone airport. In comparison, the pittance sent to Gary—$1.5 million up front, $1.4 every year—effectively doubled the tiny airport’s budget. The GOP said it had no interest in doing so, but the city felt territorial:

City officials were dead-set against a regional airport authority-even if Chicago members were in the majority-because they were convinced it would eventually mean the loss of control over O’Hare International and Midway Airports, Aviation Commissioner David Mosena said Thursday.

[snip]

He cited the example of the Regional Transportation Authority, an agency that was controlled by Chicago when it was created in the early 1970s but came under suburban domination with subsequent state legislation that changed the makeup of its board. 

Though Gov. Jim Edgar has said the state has no intention of using the $90 million in passenger ticket tax revenues collected annually at Chicago’s airports to finance his proposed field near Peotone, Mosena said “that doesn’t give me a lot of comfort." 

A regional authority might have been able to divert cash to the south suburban project in the future, he said. (Chicago Tribune, 4/21/95)

So in essence, it’s a legacy power block with a weekly flight to Florida on the side. On the other hand, I now know that I actually could have saved some money to fly to Daytona—no joke, I’m going out this week—if I’d been willing to cut a day off my trip.

 

Image: FAA

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