January 7, 2001

Halfway to a new Midway

Workers are now midway through airport's overhaul, and by summer, its old look will be long gone.

Sunday, January 7, 2001

By Guy Tridgell
Transportation Writer

Midway Airport, long the forgotten older sibling in the Chicago aviation family, desperately needed attention.

Designed to serve only 2 million passengers annually, seven times that number now roam Midway's concourses. The 29 gates compared to the 170 at O'Hare International Airport reached capacity years ago.

The boarding areas, built to accommodate 30 people, resembled mosh pits during peak travel periods.

Parking proved problematic, too. If vacationers wanted to leave their cars for extended periods, no garages were available.

The Clearing, West Lawn and Garfield Ridge communities surrounding the airport also had seen better days. Vacant properties and depressed buildings stood where seasoned travelers expected restaurants and hotels.

"Midway goes way back," said Edie Cavanaugh of the West Lawn Chamber of Commerce. "It needed to be worked over."

Midway had been deemed obsolete before and still dodged extinction. But as more and more people were taking to the skies, it became clear the airport could not survive without some changes.

A remodeling would not suffice. An overhaul was needed.

The answer has been the largest public works project in Illinois, a $761 million infusion that will add roads, attach a parking garage and triple the size of the existing terminal.

"What we have no longer functions," said Erin O'Donnell, a deputy aviation commissioner for Chicago who oversees Midway operations. "This building has been very good to the city of Chicago and its residents. But it's time to build a new gateway to Chicago."

Half of that gateway is now complete. With much of the grunt work behind, the most visible changes happen this year.

By the end of 2001, the old, familiar Midway will be gone. A new Midway will have taken its place.

"2001 is going to be a momentous year," O'Donnell said.

The birth of Midway Airport can be traced to the infancy of aviation itself.

The airport opened on land owned by the Board of Education in 1927, a mere six months after Charles Lindbergh made his noted jaunt across the Atlantic Ocean.

By 1929, Midway was the busiest airport in the world. When O'Hare opened in 1963, fortunes started to turn for the old airport. Ten years later, Midway was basically grounded.But boom years followed in the 1990s. Air travel was exploding, sparking a Midway renaissance as the convenient alternative to the bustle at O'Hare. The latest transformation started three years ago. When it is completed in 2004, the airport essentially will have been replaced inside and out.

"It is going to be completely different," O'Donnell said.

Central to the plans is the addition of 12 new gates, pushing the total to 41. After one gate is built, an old one will be removed until three new concourses are complete.

An anchor for the new gates will be set this spring, when a two-story, triangular terminal opens. The new building will have more than three times the space of the current terminal.

The upper level will consist of new ticket booths. Baggage claims will reside on the ground floor.

An old perk will be introduced later this year when new facilities are opened to process international flights.

Already in use is a 2,700-space parking garage a first in the 74-year history of Midway that will connect to the new terminal through a pedestrian walkway above a rerouted Cicero Avenue.

Getting in and out of the airport also will be a different experience. Plans call for an additional six lanes to the road in front of the terminal, nearly doubling the size and providing some relief from frequent traffic jams.

The footprint of the airport one square mile bounded by Cicero and Central avenues, 55th and 63rd streets will stay the same. The runways also will be unaffected.

O'Donnell said the entire job financed through traveler surcharges, federal grants and bonds that will be repaid through increased gate charges is within budget and on time, so far.

Operations will never cease during the seven years of construction.

"There are going to be inconveniences," O'Donnell said. "We have tried to minimize that. Our goal is to keep things functioning."

The approach of phasing the old in with the new makes for some weird scenes while construction workers in hardhats toil next to harried passengers laden down with luggage.

During the holidays, the din of construction filled the packed pedestrian walkway. A wreath hung on a naked wall of steel nearby. While workers tinkered with the workings of the future luggage transport, people hurried above them, frozen plumes of breath rising in front of their faces.

To help navigate the confusion, the department of aviation has placed information booths throughout the terminal. New, clearer signs have been posted inside and outside the airport, too.

The improvements, city officials hope, will reinforce the image of Midway as a premiere airport for point-to-point, short-haul flights. The only international trips will be to Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada.

"That is just what our market is," O'Donnell said. "Midway is always going to be a domestic airport with some minor international."

Sixteen airlines currently serve Midway. Thirteen have committed to the expansion.

Southwest Airlines, the airport's largest tenant, already has claimed 19 of the new gates, an increase of six. Southwest, which specializes in serving alternative airports, wants to use the Midway project as a launching pad for a nationwide expansion.

Since the airline came to Midway nine years ago, more than 2,600 employees have been hired to service 121 flights each day. Those numbers undoubtedly will increase with the extra gates, explained Linda Rutherford, a Southwest spokeswoman.

"We are anxious to get a hold of more gate space," Rutherford said. "We have a proven record of increasing the franchise."

Northwest, Continental and ATA will take 17 other gates. The occupants for the other five gates will be picked later.

The massive project prompts a couple questions.

What does the renovation and improvements mean to the surrounding neighborhoods? Would the project even be happening if the threat of another airport did not loom in Peotone?

City officials admit they have reached out during construction to soothe fears and win support of Midway neighbors. Indeed, a portion of the final bill, $38 million, is earmarked to soundproofing 1,200 homes surrounding the airport.

The process of selecting homes has been done through lottery. Only single-family homes with an average daily decibel level of 80 qualify. And in January, the city attempted to capitalize on the Midway renewal by establishing six tax-increment financing districts, commonly known as TIFs, to clear blight and stimulate development around the airport. The districts will help pay for improvements by routing property tax increases back to developers.

City officials are predicting the airport improvements and TIF districts will generate $2.6 million for the region and create 94,000 jobs, many of those filtering into the neighborhood.No one has moved in just yet. But Ken Pannaralla, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, said negotiations with developers are ongoing.

"We really are looking for anything that will benefit the neighborhood," he said.

But the progress comes with a price. Some smaller business likely will be forced out by larger developments. The city has pledged to help with any relocation costs.

Cavanaugh realizes her community is dependent on a healthy Midway to survive. A few business owners, though, probably will not adapt.

Who is coming and going probably will be known in the coming months.

"There is a concern," Cavanaugh said. "We don't want to lose any of our good little businesses."

As for the Peotone threat, Pannaralla said the Midway investment would be happening even without the prospect of a third regional airport. Airport expansion is ongoing across the nation, he said.

"Let's face it: More people are traveling by air," Pannaralla said. "Midway and all the other airports are increasing."

The changes to Midway will be especially evident during the coming months as the old terminal gradually shuts down and new gates open.

By summer, the old Midway will be a memory.

"I don't think you will recognize it," Cavanaugh said. "It will be totally different."

[Chicago ATC News]