A controversial plan to save two diagonal runways targeted for demolition at O’Hare Airport and clip the wings of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans was grounded by a City Council committee Thursday over the angry objections of noise-weary residents.
Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) finally got the Aviation Committee to hold the hearing he wanted. But the bottom line for his Northwest Side residents bombarded by O’Hare jet noise was no different than the answer they got from Mayor Rahm Emanuel during a face-to-face meeting in late January that took two and a half years to arrange.
By a 10-to-1 vote, aldermen shot down an ordinance that would have tied Evans’ hands on virtually all matters pertaining to O’Hare construction and “halted de-commissioning and destruction of runways and taxiways” until a public hearing is held and the full City Council approves.
Napolitano cast the only affirmative vote. Northwest Side Ald. John Arena (45th) stunned and infuriated constituents by voting with the majority.
“It is absolutely incredible that people like Alderman Arena would vote against it. It directly impacts all of the citizens in his ward. We’re really upset about it,” said Northwest Side resident Don Walsh, a retired assistant deputy fire commissioner.
“The process was a joke. They overran it by special interests and union labor. . . . Everything was special interests. Nobody cares about the citizens and the homeowners living up there. The pollution. Children not being able to sleep. It’s absolutely deplorable. These aldermen who voted against it should be ashamed of themselves. . . . It’s all about big money.”
Northwest Side resident Suzanne Carbon said she is “not against O’Hare, nor am I against progress. What I am against is the noise and pollution being forced on a concentrated segment of highly populated neighborhoods.”
Claudia Graham said backyard barbecues are out of the question at her soundproofed home because of the constant barrage of jet noise overhead.
“My family will not come over from the South Side because it’s too loud and too noisy. Every two-to-three minutes, there is a plane and they come in at about 400 feet. They start again at five in the morning. The plaster in my home has cracked because of all the vibrations of these planes come in,” Graham said.
Napolitano blamed the lopsided outcome on three hours of carefully orchestrated testimony that allowed the Emanuel administration to paint a “sky is falling” portrait of the consequences.
Steve Kaplan, a Washington D.C.-based attorney and former general counsel to the U.S. Department of Transportation, warned that Napolitano’s ordinance would violate the Federal Aviation Administration’s funding agreement and risk an FAA lawsuit that could seek repayment of $800 million already spent to modernize O’Hare.
The ordinance further threatens $90 million in noise mitigation funds, $17 million in airport planning funds and loss of O’Hare’s operating certificate, Kaplan warned.
Napolitano called those arguments a red herring.
“We’re not looking to run an airport or shut it down or cost anybody thousands of jobs. What I want is this discussion,” the alderman said.
“We go to committee for approval of stop signs. We don’t do that for runways.”
Napolitano was equally unmoved by Evans’ plan to rotate nighttime flights to provide some relief for noise-weary residents. He called it untested and questioned whether it would make a dent in noise complaints that have skyrocketed from 29,493 in 2013 to more than 4 million last year.
“What if it hits six million? If this concept doesn’t work, we have nothing. All we have is complaints. It hurts my ward. It’s driving ’em crazy. People are moving out,” he said.
“When you destroy those diagonal runways, I just have to tell people, ‘Get used to it.’ That’s what scares me. . . . And for people to come in here and say this is going to destroy the airport and hurt labor, the basis of my ward, that’s an outright lie. This is just looking for relief.”
Evans argued that the FAA has twice rejected saving the two diagonal runways. Even if the City Council mandated those diagonal runways be saved, the city would not be permitted to use them, she said. The commissioner further maintained that it’s important to give people “correct information,” not false hope.
“The correct information is, if we deviate from the plan, the status quo stays in place — probably forever,” the commissioner said.
Napolitano countered: “But if we don’t deviate from the plan, you might see a different Northwest Side of Chicago. And that’ll change forever, too.”
The Fair Allocation In Runways Coalition wants to save two diagonal runways slated for demolition and use them at night and during off-peak hours to soften the blow of dramatic O’Hare flight-path changes that hit in October 2013.
Using the diagonals at those times would help avoid repeatedly bombarding the same neighborhoods with jet noise.
Although FAIR won legislative approval to give the city the option of keeping the diagonals open, Evans has argued that it’s “not feasible” because their use would create air safety issues, interfere with roadway changes needed to create western access to O’Hare and block the airport from adding gates.
Evans told FAIR leaders during the meeting with Emanuel that keeping the diagonals would require building a “$100 million tunnel” to allow western access, and “that was a non-starter.”
Two days later, the mayor announced that he had cut a $1.3 billion deal with major airlines to build the final runway at O’Hare that, residents fear, will add even more jet noise to their daily lives.