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Guest donaltopablo

Battle Over O'Hare Expansion

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Guest donaltopablo

CHICAGO, Illinois (Reuters) -- One of the world's busiest airport may get even busier -- but not if a group of detractors has its way.

The proposed multibillion-dollar expansion of runways at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport has been the subject of lawsuits and allegations of sweetheart deals mainly by the mayors of suburbs that stand to lose property to the project.

The mayors have enlisted religious groups to protect two cemeteries in the path of the project and also to put together a coalition to try to build a competing airport from scratch in Peotone, Illinois, 35 miles southwest of Chicago.

Meanwhile, major airlines and business leaders are backing Mayor Richard Daley's vision of a reconfigured and bigger O'Hare that will no longer cause rippling delays throughout the U.S. air traffic system.

Craig Johnson, mayor of Elk Grove Village, which hugs the western edge of O'Hare, said his ongoing battle is a struggle for his suburb's very existence that may also ultimately save the airport from becoming a "white elephant."

The reason is the cost of the runway expansion -- $6.6 billion in 2001 dollars. Chicago recently released a master plan for the airport that pegged the costs of new runways, along with separate plans for new terminals and normal capital projects, at $14.8 billion over 20 years.

That price tag will force the airport to drastically hike fees charged to airlines to pay off billions of dollars of bonds that will be sold, he said.

"How can O'Hare function if it charges three to four times more than other airports?" Johnson said, pointing to the trend of low-cost airlines that cannot afford high airport fees.

But Chicago aviation officials argue total capital spending planned for the airport through 2022 will keep O'Hare's cost per enplaned passenger in the middle of the pack, compared with other major U.S. airports. They also stressed that projects will proceed only if airlines agree and if investors are willing to purchase the airport's bonds.

The city's immediate plan is to add a new runway, relocate or extend existing runways, construct a new terminal and create a western access to the airport. Chicago officials say that project will generate 195,000 new jobs and pump $18 billion into the local economy.

Other project benefits cited by the city include expected dramatic improvements in weather-related flight delays by implementing a parallel, largely nonintersecting runway system. The estimated savings would be $380 million a year for consumers and about $370 million a year for airlines.

Long-term planning

Most of O'Hare's major carriers, including United, a unit of UAL Corp., and American, a unit of AMR Corp., have signed onto Mayor Daley's initial $2.9 billion financing phase for the runway project.

Johnson, whose Suburban O'Hare Commission has hired teams of aviation experts to scrutinize plans for the airport, said many of the projects within the master plan are dependent on each other. That makes total costs excessive, while benefits, such as decreased delays, are below any threshold for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve.

Johnson said his Elk Grove Village community, which has spent millions of dollars on the O'Hare battle, supports some of the plan as long as it does not encroach on its borders.

"Build what you want on your property, just don't do it at our expense," he said. His town could lose as many as 500 businesses in its commercial park, which generates 85 cents of every dollar the suburb collects in taxes, he said. Bensenville, another western suburb, stands to lose 500 homes.

Chicago's plan would point three runways at the heart of Elk Grove's residential section, heightening concerns about safety and quality of life, Johnson said.

Rosemarie Andolino, who heads the O'Hare project for Chicago, said the city was confident the FAA would only approve a "safe and efficient airport." She added that plans for O'Hare mirrored projects the FAA has approved at other airports, such as Atlanta and Dallas Fort Worth.

Something has to be done at O'Hare as far as FAA officials are concerned.

They recently highlighted problems created nationwide by congestion at O'Hare, saying that only 60 percent of flights departing from there in November arrived at their destination on time.

As a result, American and United, which account for most of the traffic out of O'Hare, agreed to a 5 percent decrease in the number of takeoffs and landings between 1 and 8 p.m. for six months, starting in March.

FAA officials blamed the congestion on lack of runway space at O'Hare.

"We've got to plan for the long-term future of O'Hare," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, adding that the FAA has the city's modernization plan, as well as plans for the south suburban airport under review.

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They recently highlighted problems created nationwide by congestion at O'Hare, saying that only 60 percent of flights departing from there in November arrived at their destination on time.

Yeah, no kidding, one of those was mine! Waited in a tiny seat for over 2 and a half hours before we even got the go ahead to start taxi to a runway which we then had to wait another 45 minutes to depart from there. O'hare is crazy busy. I always try to fly into Midway if at all possible if I have to go through Chicago, love seeing that skyline though, and the city I used to be a part of, LOL!

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Chicago NIMBYism is starting to sound like Boston or san francisco.

Well I can't blame them for not wanting to lose 85% of their tax revenue.

Also, $15 billion is a lot to expect a city to jump up and spend. Maybe the Federal Government should help out a little since they feel it's crippling America's flight system.

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