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State of the State: The pressure’s on for Illinois to alleviate congestion at O’Hare

Aaron Chambers
WUIS/Illinois Issues

If the scene had played out in a theater, it could have been called absurd. But it wasn’t drama, it was Illinois politics.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar says that, in the early 1990s, when he tried to get Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley behind plans to build an airport in Peotone to the south of the city, he offered the mayor full control over operations. “I said, ‘You can have that airport, I just want to build the airport,’” Edgar told the Daily Southtown and the Chicago Sun-Times. “I didn’t really care about contracts and all those types of things. My concern was that we needed that airport in the south suburban area.”

Imagine Chicago annexing a corridor one mile wide down I-57 to Peotone, then incorporating enough acreage to build an airport. Daley could control the new airport’s contracts and jobs. The city could take some tax revenue. And travelers passing through an airport more than 40 miles south of City Hall could eat a Chicago-style hot dog and boast about visiting The Windy City. No doubt, if Edgar’s story is true, the mayor gave the prospect some thought.

The let-Chicago-have-Peotone proposal may be an extreme example of the political bartering that has defined the debate over Chicagoland’s aviation future, but it nonetheless seems a suitable metaphor for all that’s transpired since.

Progress toward alleviating congestion at O’Hare International, the Midwest’s major airport — and one Daley indisputably controls — has been slow. The current governor, George Ryan, who also wants to build an airfield in Peotone, and Daley, who would rather expand O’Hare, are the latest pols to butt heads over the issue. But the curtain may be about to fall on this long-running show. All politics might be local, but Illinois is getting national reviews. And they aren’t good. In fact, a U.S. Senate committee in June put pressure on state and city officials to offer a compromise plan by September 1. 

For his part, Ryan says he hasn’t ruled out approving new runways, or reconfiguring existing runways to expand capacity for takeoffs and landings at O’Hare — though this position seems to fly in the face of a campaign pledge. And some say that Daley might be willing to relax opposition to Peotone if he can get some more concrete at O’Hare.

National pressure is growing for some such compromise. In April, Iowa’s two U.S. senators threatened to push federal legislation that would kill Ryan’s authority to veto new runways. U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski, a Chicago Democrat and a mayoral ally, has introduced legislation to that effect. The U.S. Senate committee came down on local officials at its summer hearing in Chicago to review the region’s aviation problems. And the O’Hare Delay Task Force, convened jointly by the Federal Aviation Administration and the city, held its first meeting in June.

At the same time, more Illinoisans are talking about exploring another way out. “It is no longer an either/or situation,” says state Rep. George Scully Jr., a Flossmoor Democrat and vice chairman of the House Aviation Committee. “The demand is there and we’re going to have to do both. And if we can’t respond to demand, demand will go elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, stranded passengers continue to camp out at O’Hare. And when O’Hare is backed up, so is the entire nation’s aviation system. In March, Kenneth Mead, the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general, reported to a U.S. House committee that in 2000 O’Hare had more “chronically delayed” flights — delayed for one hour or more — than any airport in the nation. His report said O’Hare, with 9,900 chronically delayed flights, beat New York’s LaGuardia, with 6,135, San Francisco, with 4,911, and Newark, with 2,817.

The curtain may be about to fall on this long-running show. All politics might be local, but Illinois is getting national reviews. And they aren't good.

Overall, the report said, arrival delays at O’Hare increased 26 percent and cancelations increased 21 percent between 1999 and 2000. “The combination of burgeoning demand and limited capacity have resulted in widespread customer dissatisfaction with air travel — which FAA, airlines, and airports all have a role in addressing,” it said. 

And if that assessment wasn’t harsh enough, in April the FAA issued another report. The conclusion: O’Hare meets or exceeds its capacity for some three and a half hours on “good weather” days and is overscheduled for eight hours on “adverse-weather” days. About 2 percent of flights, according to the FAA, are delayed (more than 15 minutes) on good weather days and 12 percent are delayed on bad weather days.

State officials are focused on the problem, as well. “It has been clear for some time that there is an aviation capacity crisis in the Chicago area,” Linda Wheeler, director of the state Department of Transportation’s planning and programming office, told the U.S. Senate committee in Chicago. “Addressing delays requires addressing capacity — the two issues are interrelated.”

The forecast is for even greater demand for flights. The FAA predicts demand at O’Hare will grow by 18 percent over the next 10 years. In 2000, O’Hare handled an estimated 35.5 million emplanements — a technical term of art meaning people getting on, not getting off, airplanes. The FAA predicts that number will grow by 57 percent to 55.7 million in 2015.

That brings us full circle to the conflict at hand. Despite Rep. Scully’s belief in the need for a blended solution, some interests closest to this debate are still posturing in public and seem unwilling to move toward middle ground. 

A study commissioned for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, which supports O’Hare expansion, estimates that Chicago’s aviation system contributes $35 billion annually to the region’s economy and generates some 500,000 jobs. The chamber argues the region’s prominence as a world-class city for business depends on having only one international transportation hub. An additional airport, the group contends, won’t help Chicago capture more international traffic.

There’s also suspicion downstate about Peotone. A group called Residents United to Retain Agricultural Land told the state House committee that Ryan’s Peotone campaign comes down to “manipulation, misrepresentation and basically a public relations scheme.” The group said in a statement that the plan is generally thought to be “a plan for real estate development.”

But opponents to O’Hare expansion, particularly residents and elected officials in the city’s northwest suburbs that surround O’Hare, counter that noise and pollution from existing air traffic are excessive. They fear expansion would make things worse. The Suburban O’Hare Commission, a coalition of northwest suburban governments, argues the state can build additional runways for less money, and with less adverse environmental impact, at a new regional airport rather than at O’Hare.

And U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago Democrat, argues Peotone is just what the state needs to boost economic development in the south suburbs. In perhaps the strangest match in the aviation debate, the son of the civil rights leader has teamed up with U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, the conservative Wood Dale Republican, to oppose O’Hare expansion and lobby for the proposed new airport.

“The selected alternative cannot be expansion at O’Hare and construction of a new airport,” they wrote in a letter to Andrew Card, chief of staff to President George W. Bush. “New runways at O’Hare would doom the economic feasibility of the new airport, guarantee its characterization as a ‘white elephant’ and ensure the expansion of the monopoly dominance of United [Airlines] and American Airlines of the Chicago market.” (United and American together control about 80 percent of O’Hare’s passenger flights. They have opposed any move to build a new airport in Peotone, which could open the door to major competition for air travelers.)

There’s another option. A group called Shut This Airport Nightmare Down is trying to shift the focus from Peotone to airports in Gary, Rockford and Milwaukee — airports its members argue are “underutilized.”

Indeed, those airports might end up playing a bit part. Expanding O’Hare and/or building Peotone would take several years. In the short term, those three airports could be used to alleviate congestion at O’Hare.

In May, Scully and Rep. Julie Hamos, a Chicago Democrat and chairwoman of the House Aviation Committee, called on the state to take a “regional” approach to air travel in the Chicago area.

They conclude the state should consider short-term ways to relieve air traffic congestion, such as using Gary, Rockford and Milwaukee, as well as long-term solutions such as expanding O’Hare and building Peotone. “While it is impossible to predict the scope of future air travel demand, it is clear that an effective regional network is critical to the economic vitality of the northeastern Illinois region,” they wrote in their report.

Still, flights out of Rockford and Gary — the closest of the three to Chicago — are limited. And Milwaukee, like Rockford, is well out of the way for travelers to and from the city.

The city has thus far not issued a specific plan for O’Hare’s future, but has pledged to do so by July 1. (State officials, at the U.S. Senate hearing, said they hope to respond to the city by the September 1 date.) As for how much new runways or reconfiguration would cost, a city Department of Aviation spokesman says there’s no consensus yet on what the numbers are. The state Department of Transportation, meanwhile, says it’s in the process of buying land for Peotone. Over the last three years, the legislature has appropriated $45 million for land acquisition and planning. The department estimates that getting the airport off the ground, with one runway and a highway interchange, will cost $600 million. Building five or six runways, it says, will cost $5 billion. A department spokesman says officials are still developing their long-range financial plan.

So momentum toward a solution seems to be coming to a head. In the end, observers say, Illinois probably will get some expansion at O’Hare and, at the least, a groundbreaking at Peotone. In other words, they expect Ryan, Daley and the other powers that be to make a deal. 

Illinois Issues, July/August 2001

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