Analysis of the latest O'Hare Airport expansion plan that you won't find elsewhere

Why? Because as the Chicago Daily News’ urban affairs reporter I started covering the airport beat in 1972 when Richard J. (The First) Daley floated the cockamamie idea of building a third airport in Lake Michigan. As the transportation reporter, editorial board member and op-ed columnist for the Chicago Sun -Times I followed the issue through all of its phases, including the fight over a south suburban airport, the Lake Calumet airport proposal, the “express train” to O’Hare fight, Richard M. Daley’s O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP), the noise, pollution, court fights and all the rest until I became a freelance writer in 1998. After that, I served as a consultant for the Suburban O’Hare Commission, a coalition of communities that opposed the expansion.  Who now have been frigged by Rahm Emanuel’s latest plan first reported by Crain’s Chicago Business political columnist Greg Hinz and then recovered fully by the Chicago Tribune. (Here, here and here.)

And what have I learned during all those years.

What follows is the first of a series of periodic analyses that will, as no one else seems willing or able to do, of the latest O’Hare expansion boondoggle.

Not enough gates

The unveiling of the latest plan confirms what opponents, advised by aviation experts, had been saying for years. The original “O’Hare Modernization Program” would never live up to its promises, for  a number of reasons. One of them was that flights would continue to be delayed even after the plan is completed because there aren’t enough concourse gates to accommodate the projected increase in traffic.ohare-terminals

The OMP, way behind schedule with costs ballooning well beyond the original $6.6 billion, was supposed to reduce delays according to Richard M. Daley by up to 95 percent–on its face an impossibility. No one challenged that ridiculous promise and once again, the goal of Emanuel’s plan is to reduce delays. By how much, we don’t know. Supposedly the environmental impact statement will have to say as well as disclosing the methodology for reaching that conclusion.

Actually, the original OMP recognized the need for new gates. But it proposed an impossible solution: A new terminal with 50 new gates built on the west side of the airport. It was a BS politically inspired promise, to lure the western and northwestern suburbs to climb on board with the prospect of major economic development. But opponents, again advised by aviation experts, said it was a pipe dream. United and American airlines, a duopoly that controls more than 80 percent of the gates at O’Hare, didn’t want the competition the new gates would bring. Nor would new airlines be particularly attracted to a western terminal because of the distance from the main terminal complex that can only be entered from the east. Then there were the problems of the huge costs of building western access, parking and intrusion on a major railroad yard.

Emanuel’s plan in effect concedes the point, by putting the additional  gates in a new super terminal to replace Terminal 2. Oh sure, the city won’t admit that it has dropped  a western terminal, saying it’s still in the plans, but decades from now. What will get built out west will be an employee parking garage, a shadow of what was promised to the suburbs to drop their opposition. How’s that western access and terminal look to you now, Bensenville and the rest of youse? Even that employee parking garage sounds iffy; who would want to park there and then add another 20 minutes to your commute to get to your job located far away on the airport?

Yes, Chicago has great potential as the nation’s aviation hub. But another costly and unproductive megaproject is not necessarily the best way. The gate problem is just a small slice of the problems that any expansion of O’Hare face. For example, Chicago can add as many gates as it damn well pleases, but it can’t add more space to the crowded skies approaching the airport to accommodate all the extra traffic that’s promised.

More to come: On the “it won’t cost you anything” financing BS, the huge cost that tollway motorists already are paying for roads they will never use. And lots more.


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  • Thank you for this Dennis. I'm a pilot and have to deal with the Class B Airspace. Some people point to O'Hare losing to Atlanta as number one airport in the nation, and Illinois losing population and ask, why are we talking about expanding? They obviously are not in the sky trying to deal with the horror in the skies above Chicago.

    You hit the nail on the head, airport planning has more to do with politics, rather than markets. United and American are thugs when the topic becomes gates. There no longer is a Civil Aeronautics Board which kept prices artificially high with regulation, so the big players are controlling the market with gates. It is anti competitive, and the Chicago pols rollover for UA and AA. I need to watch myself here. I'm not sounding much like a Democrat.

  • "I'm not sounding much like a Democrat."

    Dem or Rep - You ARE sounding like a taxpayer.

    I'd be all for such a deal if I didn't already know where all the local windfall would go - directly into the bottomless pension trough.

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