O'Hare airport: test case for expansion plans

While other cities weigh proposals, Congress considers legislation on O'Hare.

Deputy village manager James Johnson doesn't mind replaying his worst nightmare.

"From the railroad tracks on, everything disappears," he says, pointing two fingers down a commercial stretch of highway here in Bensenville. A few blocks later, he drives to the back of a parking lot. "That runway ends right about where that white truck is."

Mr. Johnson isn't the only one on edge about expansion plans for Chicago's O'Hare airport. The push to nearly double the airport's capacity has pitted congressman against congressman and forged unusual alliances.

At issue: whether the nation's need for more airport space trumps local concerns about disrupted neighborhoods and the effects of noise and pollution.

From a national perspective, the plan sounds tempting. O'Hare-expansion supporters are even pushing federal legislation that would prohibit the state from blocking the airport's expansion. Many cities – from Los Angeles to Miami – in similar straits may be encouraged to follow suit.

'Political struggle for control'

But the battle over O'Hare – the nation's busiest airport – is more complicated than it may first appear. Power politics, city revenues and jobs, and airline interests all play a role. "The struggle has been a political struggle for control, not for solving the aviation crisis," says Frank Watkins, press secretary for US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois.

No one denies that delays are one of the key factors hurting the nation's air-travel network. In 2000, eight of the nation's 31 major airports experienced significant delays, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). And delays at just one airport ripple through the system.

True, the Sept. 11 attacks and recession reduced air travel last year, but the long-term problem remains. By 2010, the severe-delay list is projected to consist of O'Hare, Los Angeles International, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and all three New York-area airports. "There's a continuous challenge ... to add capacity where it's needed," says William Shumann, an FAA spokesman.

That's why Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced last year a plan to add a new runway to O'Hare and the reconfiguration of others. The idea got a boost in December, when Illinois Gov. George Ryan agreed to the plan in exchange for Mr. Daley's support for building a third area airport in Peotone, south of the city.

The legislation to further the expansion plan has bipartisan support: Governor Ryan is a Republican; Daley and US Rep. William Lipinski are both Democrats. United and American airlines, the dominant carriers at O'Hare, also back the measure.

But as opposition to the compromise mounts, Chicago seems intent on keeping a low profile. The city's aviation department did not return several calls asking for comment. Daley has said, however, that he probably won't push his expansion plan if Congress doesn't pass the bill.

While jets swoop overhead to land a mile away, Bensenville's Village Hall has become a kind of command center for expansion opponents. On one wall, a poster displays the signatures of politicians who oppose the land grab.

It's a strange group. For example, US Rep. Henry Hyde, one of the state's most conservative Republicans, has teamed up with one of its most liberal Democrats, Representative Jackson. "We are not for closing down O'Hare airport," Johnson says. "We just don't want it to grow beyond its current boundaries."

Yet that's exactly what Daley's plan would do. It would acquire 433 acres, meaning the loss of some 540 Bensenville homes.

More implications

Opponents are even more worried by what the plan doesn't spell out. For example, by adding a new western terminal and an east-west connecting highway, planners will have to upgrade a road that runs along O'Hare's western border, opponents say. That would displace existing businesses as well as homes. Elk Grove Village estimates it could lose as many as 100,000 jobs. In a worst-case scenario, Bensenville could lose much of its newly renovated downtown.

Another challenge: two old cemeteries that, for historical reasons, lie within O'Hare's borders. The new runway could cut off access to both of them, and a reconfigured runway would plow right through the one owned by St. John's United Church of Christ. Church members "will do whatever they can to protect the sanctity of what they consider to be hallowed ground," says Bob Sell, a Chicago attorney.

But opponents are not sure they can stop the federal legislation. "The bill may have the raw political muscle to get through," concedes Brian Stoller, press secretary for Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) of Illinois, who is a leading opponent of the proposal.

That prospect doesn't dim the determination of Bensenville. The village is proceeding with plans to build a new village hall in the proposed flight path.

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