Greising: These Two Wings Can Help Chicago's Cargo Biz Take Flight

The Rockford area and the southern suburbs have deep needs for equity-focused investment. Here's an airport plan that can work for both.

Prime Air Boeing 767 (Egexplorer/iStock)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

The near-dormant talk of a Peotone airport got jolted back to life late last month when Amazon announced plans to build a couple of new sorting facilities in south suburban Matteson and Markham.

The Amazon news got local politicians like U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson, and state Sen. Napoleon Harris, D-Harvey, resuscitating Peotone airport talk. Gov. J.B. Pritzker reminded those present at the Amazon announcement that he had included a $205 million Interstate 57 interchange—for the benefit of a future Peotone airport—into his $45 billion infrastructure plan.

But there already is an air-cargo success story in the area, at the Chicago Rockford International Airport. And the economics of the matter say this is a binary choice. If Peotone gets built, the Rockford airport's growth likely screeches to a halt. If Rockford continues to grow, the argument for Peotone weakens over time.

Rockford has such an incumbency advantage that common sense indicates this shouldn't be a contest. Last year, Rockford ranked as North America's 20th-largest cargo airport, with nearly 330,000 metric tons of landed cargo.

Amazon Air, which launched Rockford operations in 2016, has seen the airport expand from three parking positions that can handle Amazon Air cargo jets to eight such parking positions now. Last year, the airport more than doubled Amazon's warehouse space, to nearly 200,000 square feet.

There are plans for more growth, too. One project would expand parking capacity to handle 10 Boeing 747-8 jumbo jets; another would add space for an additional 12 widebodies.

Then there is Peotone—the pipe dream that just won't be snuffed out.

The airport concept's biggest advantage is Peotone's proximity to around 10 Amazon fulfillment centers in northern Illinois, many of them in an area running from Tinley Park up to St. Charles. The new Matteson and Markham sites strengthen the argument.

But let's face it: Peotone is not even on the drawing boards, much less built. Only about half the land is secured, and eminent domain challenges are working their way through the courts. Environmental permitting isn't finished. An idea 25 years in the making has many more years to go before Peotone would be ready for first flight.

Amazon, the very definition of a nimble e-commerce giant, can't and will not wait that long. Besides, both Amazon and UPS are having their needs ably met by Rockford, thank you very much.

Peotone boosters make an equity argument. They correctly note that public investment in the southern suburbs falls far short of what has been spent in Chicago's northern suburbs. Will County, home to Peotone, is long overdue.

But Winnebago County has its hardships, too. The home of the Rockford airport had a 15.7 percent poverty rate in 2017, nearly double Will County's 7.4 percent poverty rate, according to Data USA.

Black and Latino residents make up 41 percent of those living in poverty in Rockford's Winnebago County. In Peotone's Will County, they represent 39 percent of those living in poverty.

Add it up, and both areas have deep needs for equity-focused investment. If anything, poverty overall around Rockford runs far deeper than it does in the county that loops up from Peotone past Joliet. Disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino residents in both counties face economic misery; both need help.

The economics say Illinois should double down on Rockford, which already is a success story. But the south suburbs should not be shortchanged, either. The $205 million earmarked for that I-57 interchange could more profitably be spent to accelerate the burgeoning road-and-rail intermodal boom covering a broad swath from the southern neighborhoods of Chicago on down to Joliet.

In the end, we wind up with the same argument applied to the two very different places: Quit the squabbling and go with what's working—in Rockford and in the road-transport hub around Peotone.

The two-pronged approach is the most equitable, and economically sensible, course to take.