February 03, 2001 Chicago Tribune

February 3, 2001

Recognizing that Congress and the White House are working quickly to impose solutions to the gridlock at the nation's airports, Gov. George Ryan and Mayor Richard Daley have agreed to meet for the first time to try to settle their differences over expanding airport capacity in the Chicago area.

Ryan, who is the leading proponent of plans to build a third regional airport, said Friday he is willing to discuss adding runways at O'Hare International Airport, the solution favored by Daley and the major airlines.

"I told the mayor it was time that he and I sat down--we have not had an official or unofficial discussion about the airport in any fashion--[and] the mayor and I agreed that we are going to sit down and start the ball rolling," Ryan said during the taping of a radio program.

Despite the possible opening, two Illinois congressmen are urging the Bush administration to rule out any compromise that would add runways at O'Hare in exchange for construction of a third major airport near south suburban Peotone.

U.S. Reps. Henry Hyde, a Wood Dale Republican, and Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago Democrat, sent a letter to the Bush administration contending that more runways at O'Hare would destroy the quality of life in surrounding communities, likely kill efforts for a new airport--and not solve the chronic congestion.

"The selected alternative cannot be expansion at O'Hare and construction of a new airport," said the congressmen's letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Bush chief of staff Andrew Card.

"New runways at O'Hare would doom the economic feasibility of the new airport, guarantee its characterization as a `white elephant' and ensure the expansion of the monopoly dominance of United Airlines and American Airlines in the Chicago market."

Ryan said his talks with the mayor will focus on jump-starting the state's stalled plans for a new airport near Peotone. But the governor said new runways for O'Hare also will be on the table.

"I think you will see some movement on it," Ryan said. "There is a lot of air congestion here."

The prospect for an agreement between Ryan and Daley on the runway issue, which has split Chicago against the state and suburban residents near O'Hare for 15 years, comes amid strong signs from the White House and on Capitol Hill that long-postponed solutions to the nation's aviation-capacity crisis will be expedited and that the strategy must include ending the stalemate over building runways in the Chicago area.

Adding runways "is one of the most rapid ways of expanding capacity," Mineta told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce aviation summit in Washington on Friday. He added, "We have to stop the finger-pointing and sit down and start talking."

He did specify the airports he had in mind, but the new transportation secretary has pledged to meet in March with officials in Illinois about Chicago's air-travel gridlock.

Mineta said Friday that he plans to hasten airport expansion across the nation to meet the projected demand of 1 billion air passengers a year by 2010, up from about 670 million in 2000. He recommended streamlining the building of runways, which now takes at least 7 to 10 years, partly by condensing to a single process the various environmental reviews required before the Federal Aviation Administration approves an airport project.

Daley had consistently maintained that O'Hare has adequate airfield capacity to meet passenger demand until 2012. But on Thursday he agreed with the long-held viewpoint among airline officials and business leaders that the airport needs at least one new runway to stop delays for now and more runways to handle the industry's anticipated growth.

During a taping of the WBBM-AM radio program "At Issue," which will be aired at 9:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Ryan said that he spoke by telephone with Daley on Thursday and that they agreed to meet at an unspecified date.

Despite being able to cooperate with Daley on other economic development issues, the Republican governor has been stymied so far by Democratic opposition to his pet project in Peotone.

Ryan said reaching a consensus was vital.

"It can't just be a Mayor Daley and a Gov. Ryan. We've got to bring people together, and I intend to do this," Ryan said. "At this point, I have said I was not for new runways at O'Hare. That is still my feeling, but the door is open, my mind is open and that is why I want to sit down with the mayor and discuss what we need to do to bring this thing to some kind of agreement area."

Daley said Friday that he and Ryan have yet to get into any of the specific issues and that no time frame has been set for a possible resolution.

"The governor pointed out that all aviation issues on a local, regional and national level should be discussed and that is something that I have always said," Daley said in a written statement.

Neither the mayor nor the governor would comment on the Hyde-Jackson letter to the Bush administration. Mineta said he had not yet read it.

Hyde, a conservative who represents a district near O'Hare that is weary of airplane noise, and Jackson, a liberal who hopes to spur economic development in his South Side and south suburban district, are key supporters of the Peotone proposal.

They said in their letter that runways can be built faster and more economically at a new airport than at O'Hare or Midway and with less of an impact on the environment and public health.

They said Daley's $3.2 billion "World Gateway" expansion of O'Hare's terminal and parking lots should be "modified or abandoned" because it would ultimately balloon in cost to more than $10 billion after runways and new access roads to the airport are factored in.

The two lawmakers, who requested a meeting with Bush administration officials, also cited American and United's combined control of 85 percent of flights at O'Hare, resulting in the "economic penalty" of higher airfares.

Hyde and Jackson said O'Hare could not keep pace with forecast demand even if runways are built, but building those runways would bury the Peotone proposal.

"With massive new capacity at O'Hare, there would be no economic need for the new airport," they wrote.