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City: O’Hare equipment transferred to new runway for testing

Chicago aviation officials conceded Wednesday that equipment has been removed from an O’Hare International Airport runway targeted for demolition but said the city still can comply with pending bills to save the runway if they become law.

In addition, a city lobbyist for the first time contended on Wednesday that passage of two runway bills could eliminate western access to O’Hare under future plans for the airport that currently lack full financial backing.

The developments occurred after the Chicago Sun-Times reported Wednesday that equipment had been dismantled from a diagonal runway scheduled for demolition, despite pending bills aimed at preserving the runway. On Tuesday, aviation officials did not respond to questions about the equipment.

Jac Charlier, a leader of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, known as FAIR, called the move reminiscent of the 2003 middle-of-the-night bulldozing of Meigs Field.

“It’s Meigs Field all over again, just not with the bulldozers,’’ Charlier said.

Karen Pride, a Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman, conceded in an email Wednesday that instrument landing equipment used to aid arrivals on runway 14L/32R was taken out of service and then physically removed between May 1 and May 8. Departures are still possible there, she said.

The equipment was needed for tests on another runway due to open in October, Pride said.

Federal law requires a “several month frequency testing time” before a runway accepts arrivals, Pride said.

Plus, city and Federal Aviation Administration officials want to be sure the new runway does not experience any frequency “interference” at the new location before commissioning the new runway, Pride said. The last runway that opened under the $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Plan initially experienced such interference, she said.

In addition, Pride said in the email, “Nothing that is happening now prevents the [Chicago Department of Aviation] from complying with the pending legislation in Springfield should those bills become law.’’

Pride did not respond to questions about whether the Aviation Department and Mayor Rahm Emanuel supported the bills.

FAIR members appeared before the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday to urge passage of the two bills so that two diagonal runways can be used to distribute O’Hare air traffic more equitably. The move could help bring jet noise relief to residents east and west of O’Hare who have been hard-hit by the airport’s new flight paths, FAIR contends.

FAIR member Lisa Ziems called it “suspicious” that equipment from a runway due for decommissioning “disappeared” while a bill was pending to spare that runway.

Also Wednesday, City of Chicago lobbyist Derek Blaida told the House Transportation Committee that “there are some potential adverse effects” if the runway bills become law, including “potentially the elimination of any potential western access to O’Hare Airport.” He gave no details, and neither did Pride.

Plans for western access to O’Hare include a western terminal that airlines so far have not agreed to bankroll.

Elk Grove Mayor Craig Johnson said later that he had never heard the western access argument raised in relation to O’Hare’s diagonal runways.

“I take everything Chicago says with a grain of salt,’’ said Johnson, the chairman of the Suburban O’Hare Commission. “Show me the maps. Show me the engineering studies.”

He added: “My hope is that this is not another divide-and-conquer attempt to pit the western suburbs against Chicago residents.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman