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New O’Hare runway hailed and assailed

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel signs a shovel for a guest used for ground breaking after a press conference for the next step in modernizing O'Hare International Airport with the groundbreaking of O'Hare's newest runway, 9C/27C, in Chicago on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel signs a shovel used at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new runway at O'Hare International Airport on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel views construction of O’Hare Airport’s sixth and final runway as the key to reducing delays, bolstering capacity and unlocking the development potential of Chicago’s “economic engine.”

Noise-weary residents around O’Hare see the $648.5 million runway as the “final nail in the coffin” for diagonal runways they fought to preserve to soften the blow of dramatic flight-path changes made nearly three years ago.

On Thursday, those divergent views were on display as Emanuel presided over a wind-blown groundbreaking ceremony at O’Hare.

By delivering a runway deal with the major airlines that eluded his predecessor and political mentor, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Emanuel is solidifying his own reputation as a political dealmaker.

He’s also creating more than 6,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts while freeing up 200 acres for new gates, terminals and two more airport hotels.

“When you’re done with this runway, Chicago will be the only city in the United States that . . . added the equivalent of the capacity of a third airport. The efficiency that was added [will be] the equivalent of Midway Airport being lifted up and moved to O’Hare,” Emanuel said Thursday.

“This runway will open up the development we want to see in our terminals, the gate expansion we want to see in our terminals, the ability to expand our hotels. The businesses that we were losing . . . will come to Chicago. At every level, this is more than a runway. It opens up the future for the city of Chicago.”

And what about the impact on homeowners bombarded by jet noise?

“Without this runway, too much of the load was [carried] by one part of the community. . . . It will make sure that no one side of O’Hare will bear all that burden. It will be more fairly distributed. Meaning that communities affected today will see less of that type of burden,” the mayor said.

Work continues at a concrete demolition site after a press conference for the next step in modernizing O'Hare International Airport with the groundbreaking of O'Hare's newest runway, 9C/27C, in Chicago on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Work is underway on a new runway at O’Hare International Airport. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said construction of Runway 9C/27C will “open up O’Hare in a way that hasn’t happened for fifty years.”

The new runway — O’Hare’s second largest at 11,245 feet and 200 feet wide — is expected to open in 2020. Construction will be completed in three phases, beginning with the easternmost section, followed by the center and western chunks.

“This is the final piece in making O’Hare one of the most efficient airfields in the nation. We will balance the capacity of the north airfield with [what] we have today on the south airfield,” Evans said.

“This provides increased flexibility for east and west flow operations as well as balancing noise exposure among communities east and west of O’Hare. These are the folks who, today, are experiencing some of the most challenging noise conditions. Our airfield will be more efficient when the project is complete, and our neighbors will truly experience noise relief.”

Noise-weary residents living around O’Hare don’t see it that way.

“The city chose not to preserve the diagonals. It really is a blow, particularly for the Northwest Side of Chicago, because it removes the most viable option for noise relief. It’s more noise concentrated into that corridor. It’s a devastating noise impact we’re locked into now for the next 30 or 40 years,” said Dan Dwyer of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition.

Dwyer said the groundbreaking “marks the end” of Evans’ “Fly Quiet” plan to rotate nighttime flights to provide some measure of noise relief. That plan is still in the testing phase. But Dwyer said it will end as early as 2018 when the second diagonal runway is de-commissioned to make way for the new parallel runway.

“We’ve heard from city residents thanking FAIR. They’re getting a night’s sleep for the first time in five years. Now the city has chosen not to have that diagonal runway available as a permanent option. That plan is now going to sunset. They’re taking away what is still in the testing phase,” he said.

FAIR leader Al Rapp called construction of the new runway the “final nail in the coffin” for noise-weary residents.

He pointed to a 2015 study by JDA Aviation Technology Solutions bankrolled by the Suburban O’Hare Commission that contended that O’Hare needs gates — not runways — and has enough runways to meet aircraft volume through 2034.

“Given the present capacity of the airport and if they use diagonals as intended, it’s absolutely not needed. But they want to build hotels, develop airport property and create western access by selling part of that property to the Illinois Tollway,” Rapp said.

“It’s all about freeing up land for development and generating investment. The city is looking at the airport as an economic engine. They value that more than they value the people.”

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, left, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk near a concrete demolition site after a press conference for the next step in modernizing O'Hare International Airport with the groundbreaking of O'Hare's newest runway, 9C/27C, in Chicago on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, left, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk after a cermony officially kicking off a runway project at O’Hare International Airport on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Earlier this year, a plan to save the two diagonal runways and clip Evans’ wings was grounded by a City Council committee over the angry objections of noise-weary residents.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) blamed the 10-to-1 vote on three hours of carefully orchestrated testimony that allowed the Emanuel administration to paint a “sky is falling” portrait of the consequences.

A former general counsel to the U.S. Department of Transportation warned that Napolitano’s ordinance would have violated the Federal Aviation Administration’s funding agreement and risked an FAA lawsuit that could seek repayment of $800 million already spent to modernize O’Hare.

Evans argued on that day that the FAA had 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.

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi