May 22, 2001

New O'Hare runways now talk of the town

Durbin comments shift debate from third-airport plan

Tuesday, May 22, 2001

By Guy Tridgell
Transportation writer

On a stormy Monday in aviation politics, more dark clouds gathered over efforts to build a third regional airport near Peotone.

Answering calls to do something about delays at O'Hare International Airport, Chicago's aviation commissioner announced a task force with the Federal Aviation Administration to consider solutions including new runways.

U.S. Sen Dick Durbin, a supposed neutral voice in the debate about increasing air capacity, announced he was throwing his support behind O'Hare expansion.

Meanwhile, several mayors from towns surrounding the airport accused Chicago officials and airline executives of participating in a "generation of deceit" that involved secret plans to add runways and thwart construction of the third airport.

The sudden focus on fixing O'Hare has third-airport supporters clamoring to keep their project in the debate.

O'Hare runways would be the death knell for their project, they said.

"The battle is going to be not to roll over and say runways at O'Hare are a foregone conclusion," said Ed Paesel, director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association.

Chicago Aviation commissioner Thomas Walker said the new task force with the FAA will look at short-term improvements to existing airport terminals and long-term plans such as additional runways. A report is expected within six to nine months.

An FAA report released last month ranked O'Hare third in the nation in delays, after LaGuardia Airport in New York and Newark International Airport in New Jersey. The report found the problems at O'Hare will worsen over the next decade without a plan to boost air capacity in the area.

Durbin, in published reports Monday, said he believes the immediate answer is not another airport but more O'Hare runways. Durbin issued a July 1 deadline before pledging to back a congressional movement brewing in Washington D.C. to take veto power over new O'Hare runways from Gov. George Ryan.

Durbin's comments struck a chord locally.

Bert Docter, vice chairman of the Chicago Southland Chamber of Commerce, said Durbin told him two weeks ago that he supported a third airport, expected to create 250,000 jobs and revitalize a stagnant economy in the south suburbs. Docter and other south suburban leaders for months have expressed frustration about unclear statements Durbin has made about the project.

"It sounds like he is waffling again," Docter said. "He told us not only would he help us, but that he was for us."

Docter said Durbin seemed to agree with the argument that a new airport can solve the capacity crunch quicker and for less money than new runways at O'Hare.

"We briefed him for 45 minutes about how we could get Peotone built cheaper and more quickly than any of the other options. Why didn't he say anything about that?" Docter said. "It disappoints us that a United States senator would do that."

Neither Durbin nor his staff returned phone messages Monday seeking comment.

But his support seems to indicate a deal is in the works to reconfigure O'Hare runways in exchange for some commitment about a south suburban airport despite claims from state officials that both projects cannot coexist.

Furthermore, top Republican officials, who have balked at expanding O'Hare in the past, are softening their language when asked about redrawing the runways. Although it likely would allow more airplanes to land at O'Hare, reconfiguring runways appears to be a more palatable solution for Ryan, House Minority Leader Lee Daniels of Elmhurst and Senate President James "Pate" Philip of Wood Dale.

"We think the only permanent solution is a third airport," Daniels spokesman Gregg Durham said. "We oppose additional runways. As for reconfiguration of the runways, we'd have to see a plan. Still, it's not a long-term solution."

The melting pot of airport positions has created an apparent weak alliance for third-airport supporters, who have not made significant progress at the federal level even with a Republican in the White House.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-2nd) of Chicago said he still is a small voice fighting for a south suburban airport among the Illinois delegation.

"Just as sure as I'm sitting here today, the effort to expand O'Hare will be tied up for many years in federal court," Jackson said, referring to lawsuits expected from anti-expansion groups.

Jackson also criticized Durbin.

"Sen. Durbin is finally revealing his true colors," Jackson said. "He's always been a supporter of O'Hare expansion, and he's never been a supporter of a third airport, despite his lip service."

About 60 miles away from the farms of Peotone, the Suburban O'Hare Commission, a council of towns around O'Hare, called on authorities to investigate possible collusion between the airlines and Chicago officials.

"We must stop the secrecy and the lies," said Bensenville Mayor John Geils, standing before almost 30 binders containing thousands of city of Chicago documents and memorandums unsealed by an appellate court ruling last week.

The documents show the city was preparing plans for four parallel runways, though officials repeatedly denied the need for more airport capacity. Other papers show city aviation officials deliberately changed terminology substituting "efficiency" for "capacity" to lessen the urgency for more airport room despite the growing service delays.

At least one of the records, a 1998 document, shows the city was still considering building an airport at Lake Calumet, even though the site was ruled out years earlier because of environmental concerns.

One of the documents, which stem from a lawsuit between the Suburban O'Hare Commission and the city, encouraged a "guerrilla war" fought with "shell organizations" to stymie the south suburban airport. Victory was to be achieved when public pressure demanded more O'Hare runways.

Chicago officials said the papers are outdated plans that could be found in any major city.

But advocates for the third airport were not surprised by documents, saying the city was clear it wanted to protect an airport monopoly that generates thousands of jobs for Mayor Richard Daley.

"O'Hare is a major economic engine," Docter said. "All of Chicago's eggs are in one basket. They have a huge investment and will do anything they can do to protect it."

But Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson said the wealth should be spread to help languishing communities and boost the entire region.

Johnson said wealthier towns can no longer carry the burden while poorer suburbs and the South Side struggle. O'Hare, he said, has reached its potential.

"This is not a local issue. This is a regional issue," Johnson said. "The south and southwest suburbs have been going through an economic depression. Give them an economic engine."

Although the documents might indicate Chicago officials were scheming to protect their interests, they also present another reality: The efforts apparently were successful.

"This is a very sad day for government," Johnson said. "Here you have in front of you a history of lying.

"We don't know what to believe anymore."

Associated Press reports and staff writer Kristen McQueary contributed to this report.

Guy Tridgell may be reached at or (708) 633-5970.

[Chicago ATC News]