The last time Chicago went down this road, it led to nowhere. But it was the right road then — and still is — now more than ever.
In 1998, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced a big plan to build new passenger terminals and aircraft gates at O’Hare Airport. Everybody agreed it had to be done, notwithstanding the multibillion-dollar cost, if our city hoped to secure its economic future.
Four years later, the plan went bust. The major airlines, their industry in a tailspin after the 9/11 attacks, backed out. O’Hare’s terminals have not been expanded since, even as other big city airports have grown, though its runways have been reconfigured.
Now Chicago is back in the game, putting the final touches on an $8.5 billion plan to put O’Hare on steroids, pumping it up with a state-of-the-art global terminal, dozens of new gates and additional concourses. Terminal space would grow by a whopping 72 percent.
The expansion not only is necessary; it is long overdue. If Chicago has learned anything in the last two decades, it is that the city’s future economy will rely ever more on global business, high-tech jobs and superb transportation.
The city’s plan leaves the answers to some questions a little squishy, such as how many new jobs will go to minority and women contractors, the impact on airline ticket prices and whether jet noise will get worse. The City Council would be wise to demand more clarity.
But let’s understand this plan for what it is: Chicago at its best, making no little plans and rising to a challenge. This — as opposed to creating anti-union “right to work” zones or eviscerating workers comp regulations — is how you grow a regional economy.
The O’Hare expansion, it is estimated, would create some 60,000 construction jobs and tens of thousands of permanent jobs. It would, based on the experience of other airports that have expanded dramatically, increase the total number of passengers at O’Hare from about 78 million now to about 100 million by 2026. The cost would be borne by the airlines, not taxpayers.
A big part of O’Hare’s growth would be in international passengers, a business that has been flat at the airport for 20 years, even as competing airports have seen a growth of 4 to 5 percent a year in the number of such passengers.
Our enthusiasm for the plan is not unbounded. Any project this ambitious is sure to fall short somewhere. (Sorry for the pessimism, but we’ve been around.) Allow us to single out a couple of specific concerns:
- All jobs and contracts related to the expansion of O’Hare would be awarded according to the city’s rules for assuring strong participation by minority-owned and women-owned businesses. That would mean, for example, that a minimum of 26 percent of all construction contracts would go to minority-owned businesses and 6 percent to women-owned businesses. At the same time, city Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans says she would hope the city can do even better than that, especially when it comes to top-level positions and lead contracts. We would hope so, too, and support a call by the City Council’s Black and Hispanic caucuses for higher formal percentages.
- During a meeting Monday with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, we asked Evans and her colleagues how the expansion of O’Hare might add to the problem of jet noise. Their answer: There will be more passengers flying in and out, they said, but not necessarily more planes — just bigger and more fully booked planes. And, they said, planes will be more likely to arrive and depart on time, reducing the number of planes flying late at night, when jet noise annoys people most. People of Bensenville and the Northwest Side, do you buy that? Or do you share our gut suspicion that a 28 percent increase in the number of passengers at O’Hare is sure to result, at least in part, in more jets buzzing your homes? We’d love to see a short and sweet white paper on that one, written for the average homeowner owner.
The city’s plan anticipates no cost to taxpayers, and no increase in ticket prices. Bonds are to be issued to pay for the airport expansion, backed by future higher fees the airlines would be charged. And these kinds of fees, we are assured, represent only a small cost of doing business for an airline, so ticket prices likely won’t rise.
But American Airlines, in a last-minute complaint, says the expansion plan grants too many extra gates to United Airlines, giving United an unfair competitive advantage. Without healthy competition, American warns, United will be free to jack up prices.
Borrowing to finance the expansion should be done conservatively, in stages, so that the city is on the hook for the least money possible should the unexpected happen and the expansion cannot be completed as scheduled. And while we don’t feel qualified to rule on the merits of American’s complaint about United’s extra gates, we don’t see how it can be dismissed. That’ll have to be resolved.
Last fall, when Amazon announced a competition among cities to become the home to the company’s second national headquarters, we were happy to boast that Chicago has plenty of what Amazon needs most — beginning with excellent global transportation.
But we also came to appreciate, as we considered the strengths of competing cities, that Chicago could do more. It can always do more — that’s the only way to think, the only way to thrive.
That begins with a bigger and better O’Hare.
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