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A View from the Suburbs: Talk of trading a third airport for O'Hare runways is revving up

Madeleine Doubek
WUIS/Illinois Issues

When it comes to O'Hare International Airport, there's noise, and then there's noise. There's the kind that comes from jets taking off and landing. And then there's the political rhetoric that pollutes the media to the point that the public pays it little attention.

Over the past two decades, that's what a lot of Illinois residents have done. Paid it little attention. And who could blame them? There's been lots of noise, but not much significant dialogue about the increasing demand for air travel. That's beginning to change. The notion of trading approval of a third airport near Peotone for new O'Hare runways is fast approaching conventional wisdom. So it's time to tune in, clear the air of a few misconceptions and watch whether Gov. George Ryan will guide a big airport deal in for a landing before his term ends in 2002.

First, the misconceptions. Just as not everyone who lives south of I-80 is a farmer, not everyone who lives in a northern suburb is opposed to O'Hare expansion. Yes, it may sound that way sometimes because suburban O'Hare opponents have done a masterful job of dominating the debate. At the same time, not everyone who lives in a Chicago ZIP code favors O'Hare expansion. Even this borders on a generalization: The farther away from O'Hare, the less concern there is about its negative effects. But in the shadow of O'Hare there are plenty of residents and business leaders who do not want to see that airport's role in world travel diminished.


It's time to watch whether Gov. George Ryan will guide a big airport deal in for a landing before his term ends.

Laurie Stone, president of the Greater O'Hare Association of Industry and Commerce, notes, "The business community in this region around O'Hare absolutely understands the importance of O'Hare airport as the economic engine that drives the economy of this region." Stone says her group's members and others who hold the same view have endured tense relations with the municipal leaders whose top priority is stopping O'Hare growth. "It is a balance. Business doesn't want to be cavalier to the concerns about quality of life in and around the airport, but quality of life extends across the spectrum," Stone says. "If businesses aren't here, taxes change and that affects quality of life, too."

True, the mayor of the community where Stone works, Bensenville's John Geils, for years has issued the battle cry to stem O'Hare growth and noise. But ironically, he and Stone both see hope in the mounting momentum to do something about airports in northern Illinois.

Geils and Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson say they never have been more hopeful about approval for a Peotone airport. Ryan is pushing ahead with plans to spend the $45 million he's budgeted to buy Peotone land. He now has the ear of President George Bush. Suburban mayors for the first time had the chance to plead their case to Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta after eight years of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley stalling Peotone studies by flexing his clout in Bill Clinton's administration. Even Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin has added his support to proceeding with environmental studies of Peotone.

"This battle's been going on for 20 years," Johnson says, "and I've never been so confident."

But what of all this talk about a Peotone airport in return for at least one new runway at O'Hare? Ryan keeps mentioning such a scenario as he offers to discuss airport options with Daley.

"Everyone knows we can't trade runways for Peotone," Johnson says. Whoa. Not everyone. There's Stone and all the people her group represents. She hopes for "a compromise that everyone could live with because no one is going to get 100 percent of what they want." Isn't it possible that the Peotone-for-a-runway swap is just the sort of big-deal compromise Ryan would love to take credit for on his way out of a scandal-scarred tenure?

"You always worry about that," Geils allows. Still, he and Johnson say they have no reason to doubt Ryan and the suburban legislative leaders who say such a deal won't happen. If Ryan seeks a second term, he needs to try to keep support from the suburban voters Geils and Johnson represent. If he retires? Well, Johnson hopes Ryan will see departing with an airport deal "would leave things on a sour note" for the many vocal opponents of O'Hare expansion.

Still, it's obvious those whose local political careers have revolved around both kinds of O'Hare noise have given thought to the risk the swap talk represents.

"If you put a runway at O'Hare," Johnson says, "all you'll get at Peotone is a windsock." 

Madeleine Doubek is assistant metro editor/projects & politics for the Daily Herald.

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