Week of September 1, 2003
Snapshot from the Field
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$6.6-Billion O'Hare Expansion Facing Fractious Delaysby JACK LYNE, Site Selection Executive Editor
of Interactive Publishing
CHICAGO The US$6.6-billion plan to expand Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (www.ohare.com) may finally be taxiing for takeoff. But first, though, the huge design must shed three pieces of oversized baggage that are significantly weighing it down.
Passed by a wide margin in late May, the O'Hare plan's substantial to-do list specifically includes securing Federal Aviation Administration approval (refused the first time around); beating back a court challenge, and ensuring the multibillion-dollar funding.
But at least one large piece of the O'Hare design fell into place last month: Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) signed into law the O'Hare Modernization Plan (http://modernization.ohare.com), which plots out a major part of the airport expansion's navigational path.
That path leads to a substantial reconfiguration of the current layout of seven crossing runways. The expansion would add another runway and relocate three existing ones. In its current form, O'Hare's revamped design would have six parallel east-west runways and two diagonal runways. The plan would also add a new terminal and provide direct highway access from the area's western suburbs.
195,000 Projected New JobsThe expansion is long overdue, many maintain. Despite handling the world's largest volume of flights, O'Hare hasn't added a runway since 1971. Delays in inclement weather have become frequent.
"Today we are taking a giant step forward in the effort to improve the long-term health of our city, region, and state," Daley said at the signing at O'Hare. "Gov. Blagojevich, when you sign the bill today, you will be telling the world that Chicago and Illinois intend to maintain their national leadership in the field of transportation and aviation."
In addition to reducing delays, the Modernization Plan is designed to increase O'Hare's total flights to 1.6 million a year - a 78 percent rise. A major jobs upsurge would follow in the wake of that hefty flight increase. Plan designers estimate that the expansion will add 195,000 new positions to the 450,000 jobs that O'Hare currently generates.
"The expansion of O'Hare doesn't just affect Chicago or northern Illinois or just benefit one or two carriers," Blagojevich said. "The legislation I'm proud to sign today benefits the entire state of Illinois. The modernization of O'Hare will help to spur our state's economy, create nearly 200,000 jobs, reduce travel delays and retain Illinois' preeminence as a world-class transportation center."
Court Challenge Brakes 'Quick-Take'Getting Blagojevich's and Daley's John Henrys wasn't just ceremonial formality. An Illinois state law requires the mayor's and governor's agreement for any Chicago airport expansion.
A signed agreement seemed - at least at one point - like it would signal full speed ahead for the expansion. The law authorizes "quick-take power," allowing the city to immediately acquire needed land, settling later on purchase prices. The expansion plan calls for acquiring 433 acres (173 hectares).
Quick-take got slower, though, in June. Elk Grove Village and Bensenville, along with two cemeteries, filed suit to halt the expansion.
Elk Grove Village and Bensenville are projected to lose about 600 homes and businesses with the expansion. And one proposed runway path goes directly over St. Johannes and Rest Haven cemeteries, which together contain 1,500 graves. (The city had already agreed to relocate the cemeteries, plus provide a six-year $20 million pool to compensate school districts that lose revenue because of the expansion.)
That suit, which was also filed by several local churches and the non-profit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, got results. A circuit judge issued an expansion injunction, which was unanimously upheld by the Illinois Appellate Court's 2nd District.
Even that ruling, though, seemed temporary. Once signed, the O'Hare Modernization Plan would supercede the Illinois Aeronautics Act, the court ruling's key rationale.
Chicago officials, however, responded to the suit by filing a legal memorandum promising not to buy any expansion properties until the FAA approved the O'Hare expansion plan.
FAA Rejects Plan, Calls for RevisionsThat agreement loomed much larger only a day after the plan was signed into law: The FAA rejected the design, sending it back to the city for taxiway-design alterations.
The big issue was the plan's claims of a 95-percent reduction in bad weather flight delays. That, the FAA asserted, wasn't going to happen, particularly with flights between Chicago and the East Coast, the most crowded airspace in the U.S.
Currently, O'Hare in inclement weather can handle a per-hour average of 156 flights arriving from and departing to the east. With the new layout, though, the Chicago plan projected that it could hourly handle 242 such flights in bad weather. No, 176 planes was a much more realistic number, the FAA said.
Barry Cooper, manager of the FAA's Chicago-Area Modernization office, advised the city in an August letter "to consider and fully evaluate the option of adding . . . a runway 12-30 positioned to the south end of the airfield to facilitate balanced inbound/outbound traffic flows under specific airfield conditions."
The FAA ruling was quickly hailed by the Suburban O'Hare Commission (SOC at www.suburban-ohare.org), a consortium of local governments from the communities surrounding O'Hare.
"The design is dangerous, because it would force too many taxiing planes to cross active runways," said SOC Vice Chair and Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson.
The Air Traffic Controllers Union (ACTU) has similarly criticized the plan. The six parallel runways, says the ACTU, will mean 1,000 taxiing aircraft daily crossing active runways, 10 times the current number.
City to Resubmit Plan 'in Several Months'Chicago officials, however, say that the O'Hare expansion plan will soon secure the FAA's OK.
The city already knew about the FAA's objections due to Cooper's earlier May 2 letter. (The original design was submitted in late December.) Due to Cooper's first letter, many necessary changes have already been put in place, and the city will submit "revised plans in several months," said Ramon Ricondo, president of Ricondo & Associates, a locally based aviation consultancy working with Chicago on the O'Hare project.
That fix doesn't fly with the SOC's Johnson.
"Any assertion that the capacity and taxiway problems can be fixed is simply whitewash," he said. "The runways will not give Chicago the capacity it needs to meet its own goals."
In the meantime, the cities of Bensenville, Elk Grove Village and Park Ridge have financed a feasibility study for a major airport in the Peotone area, the southern Chicago suburb that most O'Hare expansion opponents favor. That study is investigating a private-sector Peotone airport operated in concert with a private-public partnership.
O'Hare expansion opponents also say that they may take legal action in a higher court.
Opponents' Study Claims Cost is $16 BillionThose opponents further turned up the heat on project funding 10 days after the FAA ruling. Washington, D.C.-based Infrastructure Management Group Inc., a consulting firm hired by Bensenville and Elk Grove Village, released a study asserting that the O'Hare expansion would actually cost some $16 billion.
City officials have countered that the $16-billion figure is inaccurate and that it includes items not in the O'Hare plan. Among the latter is the $3.8-billion World Gateway program, an earlier plan to add two new O'Hare terminals and expand some existing ones. The city halted that project last year after locally based airlines said they couldn't afford it. The Gateway project isn't part of the current O'Hare expansion plan.
Daley has promised throughout that no local or state taxpayer funds will be used for the modernization. Instead, he vows, airlines, passenger facility charges and federal grants will fund the expansion.
But for the moment, at least, all the brouhaha has created the very same problem for the O'Hare modernization that the plan was designed to abate:
Editor's note: For a look at other massive projects that are changing the site selection scenario, see "The 2003 Global Infrastructure Report" in the brand-new September issue of Site Selection.
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