airport

airport (Tribune illustration)

The state has paid $34 million to acquire a private airfield in Will County that occupies a small part of the almost 6,000-acre footprint that is envisioned as the first phase of a large commercial airport to be built in the south suburbs, officials announced Tuesday.

The transaction involving Bult Field covers 288 acres, including the airfield’s 5,000-foot-long runway, airplane hangars, a terminal and farmland near Monee, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The purchase increases the state’s land acquisition to more than 3,500 acres, at a cost of about $76 million, for the proposed airport, officials said.

The state has set aside a total of $100 million for land acquisition. Officials on Tuesday could not provide overall expenses to date on the project, which when completed would cost billions of dollars.

IDOT said it will operate Bult as a general aviation airport until the land it sits on is needed for the commercial airport served by airlines. Critics of the plan say that day will never come.

The Quinn administration said it needs the Bult property to construct the future major airport, a project that has been planned at least since George Ryan was governor. Ryan made a deal in 2001 with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to throw the state’s support behind the expansion of O’Hare International Airport in return for Daley dropping his opposition to a “third airport’’ near Peotone.

But the major airlines serving O’Hare and Midway Airport have shown no interest in a south suburban airport.

Yet it hasn’t stopped the state from spending about $42 million to acquire 3,315 acres to date, not including the Bult property, out of the 5,800 acres that are needed for a starter airport consisting of one main runway and a terminal with a limited number of aircraft gates.

Susan Shea, IDOT’s director of aeronautics, said Tuesday that the purchase of Bult “marks a defining moment’’ for the south suburban airport.

But funding and issues regarding possible private-sector investment in the proposed Will County airport remain unsettled.

The state has been working for years to develop an airport master plan and complete an environmental impact study for the south suburban airport. Both would have to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in order to proceed to construction.

In February, IDOT issued a request for information from aviation companies to offer “specific ideas and goals that will help generate a comprehensive and effective strategy to market commercial air passenger and air cargo activity’’ at the proposed airport.

Bult Field opened in 2007 on the site of the old Sanger Field, a rural airport dating to the late 1940s. Bult was built by James Bult, a businessman and aviator.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

Twitter @jhilkevitch