No Madison Airport?

Over the weekend, I came across a web site ( that advocates shutting down Dane County’s airport and moving it outside Madison city limits. The people behind the web site, mainly east-side residents fed up with the increasingly obtrusive levels of jet noise in their back yards, envision a New Urbanist community springing up from the acres of tarmac where jets once taxied to and from the gates. Deriding the neighborhood surrounding the current airport as a “ghetto,” the web site states the new airport could be situated in a greenfield location far from town, presumably in an area populated by half-deaf farmers too busy plowing and fertilizing their fields to notice the increase in jet traffic.

To airport relocation supporters—no doubt all Madison residents—this proposal is pure win-win. The skies become quieter above Madison, while its property tax revenues swell from the mixed-use developments rising up on what had been county-owned property. That Madison’s gain would come at the expense of an outlying township not yet overrun by commuter households is of little concern to the proponents. The objective here is simple: to find a place outside of Madison where noisy jets can ferry travelers to and from the metro area without disturbing Madison residents.

Had this proposal surfaced in the late 1940s through the 1950s, a time when land and energy were both plentiful and cheap, it might have generated some political traction. This was the period when the city of Chicago, having decided that Midway Airport was too cramped and hemmed in to function as a world-class jetport, bought 7,000 acres of undeveloped land surrounding sleepy Orchard Field, and built the sprawling, but now congested, facility known as Chicago O’Hare.

It is no small irony that Chicago O’Hare, for many years the world’s busiest airport, is as overcrowded today as Midway was in the 1950s. A third airport serving Chicago has been suggested as a remedy, but it’s highly unlikely that one will get built, in large part because of rising land and energy costs.

Because Madison’s airport, unlike O’Hare, does not have congestion problems, the No Madison Airport proposal doesn’t respond to a public need. But that doesn’t stop relocation backers from calling on the county to issue bonds to pay for this extravagance. At this point, the proposal crosses the line between wishful thinking and crackpot social engineering. Is Madison so wealthy a community that it could afford to reduce ambient noise levels by closing down its existing airport and building a brand-new airport farther out in the country? Does this proposal make any more sense than moving a house 200 feet away from a tree to guard against windstorm damage?

Supporters of airport relocation must believe the United States is awash in energy and has its financial house in order. Perhaps they also assume the skies will be more crowded with jets than they are now. None of these assumptions is based in reality, however.

Take energy, for example. There is ample evidence suggesting the volume of exportable oil worldwide has reached a plateau and will soon begin an irreversible trend downward. As that happens, it will become increasingly expensive to move people and goods around by air. Alternatives to jet fuel, like electricity or ethanol, are great for powering trains and automobiles, but they are useless for flying airplanes. With no substitutes for jet fuel on the horizon, commercial aviation will contract and air travel will become, as it was until the mid-1950s, an elite activity.

Even if fuel supplies remain steady, one can’t help but wonder what future sources of wealth will come along to prop up the airline industry, which is one of America’s largest energy sinks. We can rule out the domestic automobile industry, which is imploding before our very eyes. The same holds true for the rapidly contracting residential housing market. Unfortunately, when housing values decline, it not only diminishes discretionary spending on such items as air travel, it also causes property tax revenues to slump. This is no trivial matter for a public body being asked to issue bonds to underwrite a large capital “improvement.”

The No Madison Airport proposal represents the kind of NIMBYism that flourishes among people who expect our one-time endowment of fossil energy to remain inexpensive and abundant throughout their lifetimes. Under this mindset, all of the inconveniences and eyesores that inevitably come with living in a hypermobile society can be easily relocated to sacrifice zones beyond the horizon. It reflects the widespread but delusional belief that, as Americans, we can still afford to put lots of space between our houses and the infrastructure needed to support such an affluent lifestyle. In fact, such physical arrangements are made possible only with a fossil fuel subsidy, and they will be difficult to sustain without it.

Ironically, as jet traffic subsides as a result of increasingly expensive fuel and other economic traumas, life will get quieter for those living in proximity to Dane County’s airport. Massive public spending will not be necessary to effect that change, only patience.

From the March 7-13, 2007, issue

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