Thursday, January 6, 2011

2010: Reality debunks early airport predictions

It is now 2010. This was was supposed to have been an aviation milestone, according to long-ago predictions.

By 2010 the number of people traveling by air was supposed to be equal in all parts of the Chicagoland region. That prediction was made in 1987 and was known as the equal propensity to travel theory.

Equal Propensity to Travel Theory

This illusive theory appeared with no explanation of its origin, yet was alluded to throughout the pages of the Chicago Airport Capacity Study, by Illinois Department of Transportation consultants Peat, Marwick and Main.

The theory was derived by sub-consultants, the al Chalabi Group, Ltd., the husband and wife consulting team – Margery and Suhail al Chalabi – who have worked for the State of Illinois on the 'third airport' project since its inception.

The equal propensity to travel theory was used to exaggerate a trend of population, income, and jobs south of the city which contributed to a justification that a new airport should be built south of Chicago.

One asssumption, then another, and another, ...

The initial assumption that there would be an equal propensity to travel throughout the Chicago region by 2010 was merely a planning tool, one of many assumptions built into the computer model from which other predictions were generated. That assumption helped generate other forecasts, such as:  the number of passengers that would use a new airport; the number of aircraft operations that would be served; as well as how many direct, indirect, or induced jobs the project would create. It just so happened that the first crystal ball was aimed at 2010.

The equal propensity to travel theory did generate some controversy. One of the members of the technical committee, which might be considered a 'stakeholder,' in today's terms, called the theory, "false."

Members of the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry, which later became the Chicago Chamber of Commerce explained, "The recent growth patterns in the Chicago region have increased travel propensity in the areas closer to O'Hare, not led to equal travel propensity."

The irony

The equal propsensity to travel theory was a prediction that is very different from today's reality, where some south suburban communities are considered to be among the poorest in the state.

It is ironic that the state's early prognostications that point to a need for a new airport to serve a burgeoning south suburban population stand in stark contrast to both the reality and the claims being made today by south suburban leaders. They claim that what is needed are the jobs and economic development that a new airport would provide.

The loudest voice of support for an airport near Peotone has come from U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. who may have never even heard of the equal propensity to travel theory. After all, when it was being written into the fabric of 'third' airport history, Jackson was in college in North Carolina. It wasn't until long after, around 1993, that Jackson became interested in the project. It wasn't until two years later that he was elected to Congress.

Your tax dollars at work 

The al Chalabi Group, Ltd. who first derived the 2010 prediction, remains on the state's payroll as they have for the past 23 years. They have a contract with the state transportation department at least until December 2011.  The consultants continue to make predictions for the Peotone project. Their latest, done in 2007, extrapolates figures into 2030.

They state that by 2030 there will be 4.5 million passengers using the South Suburban Airport. That prediction doesn't seem possible either, since the project is not yet approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The late State Sen. Aldo DeAngelis explained at the time, that the main goal in getting the report approved was so the process could move forward to the next study. DeAngelis, who was once considered the Godfather of the third airport, was one of the decision-makers that approved the report despite its criticisms.

The equal propensity to travel theory was never discussed again in subsequent airport studies.