An Interview with Gerald S. Flaherty

Gerald S. Flaherty is a group president of Caterpillar Inc. He joined Caterpillar in 1959, and is a graduate of the Aurora Plant's two-year manufacturing training program.

In 1964 he earned a bachelor's degree, and in 1967 a master's degree from Northern Illinois University.

After a series of foreman and superintendent assignments, Flaherty became assembly factory manager at the Decatur Plant in 1972; and was named assistant director of Manufacturing G.O. in 1975.

Prior to becoming Aurora Plant manager in 1983, he was manager of Milwaukee, Wis., Plant from 1977 to 1980, and manager of York, Penn., Plant from 1980 to 1983.

He became a vice president with administrative responsibility for Employee Relations in 1987, and was elected an executive vice president in April 1989. Flaherty became a group president July 1, 1990 and has responsibilities for Parts & Service Support, Track-Type Tractors, Component Products, Human Services, Caterpillar Overseas S.A., and Diversified Products.

Flaherty is a member of the Community Advisory Board, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center; Bradley University Board of Trustees; Peoria Area Community Foundation; Lincoln Foundation for Business Excellence Board of Trustees; Manufacturers Alliance Board of Trustees; and Peoria Workforce Development Board. He's been a member of the Greater Peoria Airport Authority since 1993, and is co-chair of the Peoria-to-Chicago Freeway Coalition.

What changes have been made at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport to better serve customers, and when will we be able to measure the success of those changes?

We've added two new gates, new restrooms, a frequent flyer lounge in a 200-foot concourse, and totally refurbished the existing concourse.

In anticipation of increased air service, we've also added 200 parking spaces. This winter we should complete a $1.25 million car rental service center, directly west of the terminal, for the five rental agencies serving travelers.

In all, it's a very good facility that continues to get better. Customers include four freight delivery operations, and two military units. Air cargo exceeded 41 million pounds last year and has grown 16 percent annually.

In 1997, 470,000 passengers arrived or departed. Our 1998 numbers look to be even better.

What else needs to be done to make the airport more customer-oriented?

From a passenger service perspective, there's still much to be done. We need to develop more reasonable cost alternatives for business and leisure travelers. Competition usually helps bring costs down. AccessAir will help, but we're continuing to work to convince other airline operators that opportunities exist here for their business to other parts of the U.S.

As far as current operations are concerned, we're trying to speed the time it takes to get luggage from the planes back to the passengers. We've hired a skycap to work curbside every morning to help with baggage. We're installing a credit card machine in the paid parking lot to make it quicker to check out. And there's a new x-ray machine, so you don't have to unwrap gifts, or power on laptop computers.

We've heard a lot of complaints recently about flights-especially out of St. Louis-that are canceled unexpectedly. In fact, Congressman Ray LaHood visited with folks there to discuss the situation. How serious is the problem and what can be done about it?

The Airport Authority is very concerned with the reliability of all carriers serving Peoria. At a meeting in St. Louis this past summer, officials from TWE assured Peoria officials that improvements would be made, but not overnight. Unforeseen crew shortages contributed to some of the problems, so it's not just weather-related.

Northwest Airlink, American Eagle, and the United Express jet to Denver have been operating very reliable schedules.

Congressman LaHood's involvement certainly helped us get the attention of the airlines.
His service on the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been absolutely strategic.

Many people don't like the smaller commuter airplanes flown in and out of Peoria. AccessAir will provide a partial solution to that. Are there other possibilities?

I understand the opinion some have of the smaller commuter aircraft, but if you look at the flight schedule from Peoria compared to other cities across the country, you'd have to say we're very fortunate. The equipment flying to and from Peoria can get you to the hub destinations as fast as jets. We've seen a continual upgrade in the type of planes serving Peoria. It's a young, nimble fleet. The jets that United Express just started flying to Chicago are a wonderful addition.

What kind of community support do you think AccessAir will get from the local community?

Local businesses, including Caterpillar, and individuals have invested more than $4 million to get this airline into the air. AccessAir picked two of the more important destinations without direct service from this area-New York and Los Angeles.

Local travel agents and central Illinois passengers are enthusiastic about non-stop jet service to New York and one-stop service to L.A. If the service is reliable, the fares competitive, and the schedule convenient, this area will support the service. As AccessAir adds planes, it also plans to add service to several other major destinations and connecting points. We have local people representing us on their board, so it should reflect the needs and interests of our area.

The cost of commuter flights to Chicago or St. Louis can be significant. To avoid the charges and the planes that are used, some people drive to Chicago or St. Louis and then fly out of those two cities. Is there a way to avoid that?

People drive to those cities because of concerns about cost and reliability. Costs have improved due to increased competition. If you're stopping in one of those cities, the cost is especially high, but if you're just passing through you might be pleasantly surprised. I think 1999 will be a very good year for Peoria and the surrounding region.

We've tried to leverage Caterpillar's buying power to benefit the community. But we have to use services once we get them. For example, with such good service to Denver, that should become a connecting point to the west allowing travelers to avoid both Chicago and St. Louis.

What was the thinking that went into Caterpillar's investment in AccessAir?

Anything that improves the quality of life in our community is good for Caterpillar. We like the concept of linking two midwestern cities (Peoria and Des Moines) with both coasts and other potential destinations, even though AccessAir won't be serving the major destinations we need. We're not in the business of running an airline, but we want to be a team player.

There's been some discussion of the need for a regional airport, possibly in the Lincoln area. What's your opinion of that concept?

The discussions I've heard fail at times to recognize that Peoria has one of the finest facilities in the midwest, and plenty of room for expansion to serve all the citizens of central Illinois. The Peoria airport is conveniently located near the interstate highway system, and has a 1.3 million population base within a 90-minute driving distance. It would cost billions to recreate and staff the infrastructure already in place here-the 10,000-foot, fully instrumented primary runway and 8,000-foot secondary runway, and 24-hour FAA traffic control.

Nearly 3,600 full and part-time employees work for the Airport Authority and such airport businesses as freight delivery, the Illinois Air National Guard and Reserves, the U.S. Postal Encoding Service, a check sorting operation for the Federal Reserve, and the U.S. Customs Service office. The Authority's annual operating budget for the most recent fiscal year topped $13.6 million. In my opinion, we have a valuable and viable asset in the Greater Peoria Regional Airport. It deserves continuing investment.

Bruce Carter's resignation takes effect Feb. 1. Comments on his tenure or the search for a replacement?

Bruce came to Peoria in 1994. Since that time there have been many improvements made. These include infrastructure upgrades, economic development, better passenger service and a community involvement effort to enhance the quality of life in the Peoria area. The search is underway to find an equally effective successor.

Discuss the other major transportation issue of interest to Peorians-that is, the Peoria-to-Chicago freeway. Bloomington-Normal sits on 1-55, which feeds directly into Chicago. Do you think that gives those communities additional benefits that Peoria does not get?

Development follows transportation. The Illinois River brought the first settlers to Peoria and still provides some strategic advantages. But having three interstates and an Amtrak station has been a major plus for significant growth in Bloomington-Normal. Folks there also recognize the value of airports. Anyone who's traveled around that area can observe the miles of new housing, and the growth in shopping and jobs.

What direct and indirect benefits do you think Peoria would enjoy if a Peoria-to-Chicago freeway became a reality?

If you want to prosper, build roads. That's what Congressman LaHood told the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission's transportation symposium last fall. We've had an in-depth economic study as part of the Peoria-to-Chicago feasibility study. The study showed that, in terms of economic development, the state would be better off with rather than without a Peoria-to-Chicago freeway.

The Peoria area would increase its attractiveness to businesses ranging from large manufacturing to small businesses. Indirect benefits would accrue from the actual construction of the highway as well as the ability of existing employers to maintain their work forces.

What are the possible routes under consideration?

The feasibility study completed in August of 1995, suggested three cross-country corridors. One runs from the Washington Bypass to the abandoned Santa Fe Railroad tracks, then northeasterly to Roanoke and along Illinois Route 116 to Interstate 55 at Pontiac. The second runs from the Washington bypass east to US 24, and then along US 24 to Interstate 55 near Chenoa. The third-which is west of Illinois 29-runs north from Illinois 6 to Interstate 180, and then easterly and parallel to Illinois 71 to Interstate 39.

Which of the routes do you think is the most cost effective?

There really isn't enough information yet to determine that. The feasibility study identified differences in traffic efficiencies, economic development, environmental impacts, and engineering factors.

The Illinois Department of Transportation has $10 million for a Phase I Planning Study to identify a cross-country corridor and complete the engineering and environmental studies. Then we'll have key data.

Which of the routes do you prefer?

In my opinion, it's premature to favor one route over the other. Any of the three routes are viable and serve the needs of the communities located in this area. We have to work together to promote the corridor that is eventually selected. This is a huge project and it will not be constructed without a broad base of community support.

IDOT announced plans Dec. 2 to move forward with the Eastern Portion of the I-474 ring road. Is this significant in terms of time frame or financing for the building of the Peoria-to-Chicago freeway?
IDOT modified their original plans in response to public comment. They need to define a corridor and protect the right-of-way. This will be the Eastern Connection for the Peoria-to-Chicago freeway, so it's all part of the whole plan.

We don't want them to end up paying more money for developed property in order to connect between I-74 in Tazewell County, and Route 6 in Peoria County.

What is the likelihood of getting the necessary funding for a Peoria-to-Chicago freeway?

Congressman LaHood said he's confident this Peoria-to-Chicago freeway will be constructed if we sustain our support base. A considerable amount of money has been invested to demonstrate that the project is feasible and cost effective. So far, the financial benefits to be created by the project are greater than the construction and maintenance costs.

What kind of commitment will have to come from the community to make this happen?

Sustained public support is the most important factor with a project like this, and the key word is "sustained." Beyond resolutions of support, the coordinating group has to have a method to build consensus that sets aside partisan issues and lets engineering decisions receive their proper priority.

Back in 1992 the Peoria Transportation Symposium identified the direct highway link between Peoria and Chicago as the number one transportation priority for the area.

The Tri-County Regional Planning Commission provided leadership and established the Peoria-to-Chicago Freeway Coalition, made up of local business, government and community leaders.

Mike McCord of Illinois Mutual has chaired and/or co-chaired this Coalition throughout most of its lifespan. Its efforts, in my opinion, have been quite effective.

Are you in agreement with the East Peoria, Morton, Pekin, Peoria and Washington Chambers of Commerce list of top priority regional road and highway projects they announced Nov. 18?

Yes. The real key is that there's continuing mutual agreement. The transportation committees of the five chambers are working together with the public works departments in the various cities, plus IDOT and Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. The ring road/Peoria-to-Chicago freeway project tops their list.

Will the state legislature play a role in this in any way? If so, what will it take to get their support?

The Illinois Department of Transportation has the responsibility for building major highways. Even if the bulk of the funding for this project comes from federal sources, the state legislature has a role.

IDOT is accountable to the governor, with funding approved by the General Assembly. We've been blessed with supportive local legislators who continue to give this its necessary priority. We look forward to working with Governor Ryan and his cabinet, as well as other new officials.

What will convince Congress to support this freeway?

We need to follow and support Congressman LaHood's lead in this regard.

His stature on the House Transportation Committee and within the Illinois delegation is a tremendous asset.

Senator Durbin is well informed on the merits of this project, but now we have a new U.S. Senator in Peter Fitzgerald, and we have to demonstrate to him how important this freeway is to central Illinois. Local and regional unity are also necessary for us to succeed.

We need to keep the lines of communication open to the local community and to other parts of the state that will benefit from the Peoria-to-Chicago freeway, if we expect to maintain active support and enthusiasm. That should make it easier for the Congressman to work with colleagues in the Illinois delegation to get funding.

Is there any organized opposition you have to overcome?

We've had excellent support so far. The most likely time for opposition comes after a recommended corridor is announced. We need to work very hard to be sure our coalition of support is strong and active. Major projects always have some negative impact on someone, and those impacts should be minimized. But we need to do what is right and beneficial for the entire region.

What's the likely time frame for a decision on whether to build the freeway? On completion of construction?

The decision process is on-going. We have the funds to undertake the Phase I Study of location and design.

That will probably start within the year, and take two to three years to complete. We're taking it one step at a time.

Whether IDOT moves ahead with plan preparation and actual construction will depend on the level of funding available at that time.

According to IDOT, for a project of the magnitude of a Peoria-to-Chicago freeway, a 20-year time frame from the beginning of Phase I to completed construction with ribbon cutting would be very aggressive.

What misperceptions, if any, does the community at large have in regards to the design, feasibility, and time frame for building another airport or completing a major highway?

From what I've heard, the biggest misperception involves the extent of the studies and the time it takes before construction can begin.

I think most people are surprised at how long it takes to work through the process. IDOT's Phase I study will involve environmental studies including wetlands, historic homes, archaeological impacts, fish and wildlife impacts, hazardous waste, Department of Conservation, Corps of Engineers, bicycle paths, pedestrian paths, as well as an intense and comprehensive public involvement process.

Coordination must occur between State and Federal agencies, local counties, cities, towns and villages.

Don't underestimate the importance of continuing leadership and public support. So far these projects have had all of the required elements.

That's why we've gotten as far as we have, and why I believe we'll succeed in getting this freeway completed and the airport strengthened. IBI

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