By Dan Mihalopoulos, Tribune Staff Writer. Freelance writer Steve Young contributed to this report.
October 6, 2000

Despite a warning to stick to the topic, speakers at Thursday's federal hearing on a $3.2 billion plan to improve O'Hare International Airport said little about the subject at hand: the expansion's impact on the environment.

Instead, the session quickly became a forum for debate on the future of aviation in the Chicago area.

"We are not here today to debate the merits of the city's development proposal," said Phillip Smithmeyer, Federal Aviation Administration district manager, whose words were promptly ignored.

All but three of the 13 speakers at the hearing in Des Plaines bashed Chicago's World Gateway plan, which would feature two new terminals and 20 more gates by 2008, but would call for no new runways in the near future.

"I don't think creating a larger facility at O'Hare can be anything but a detriment to this area and the people who live here," said state Rep. Rosemary Mulligan (R-Des Plaines).

City aviation officials said they did not design the World Gateway program to increase the number of flights at O'Hare. Rather, they said, they intend to improve the efficiency of O'Hare, particularly for the growing category of international passengers.

Chicago officials said they hope the federal government will rule by early next year that the expansion would have no significant impact on the environment. But first they must face critics at the requisite public hearings. Another public hearing will be held 30 days after the release of an environmental assessment draft expected late this year.

Thursday, opponents came from the south suburbs, northwestern Cook County and points in between. While many voiced concerns about toxic emissions from O'Hare, the comments just as frequently touched on demands that the region's aviation focus shift to a third airport in Peotone.

"We need more capacity and that means a new airport," said Frank Bartolone, a Park Ridge alderman.

R. Eden Martin, president of the Commercial Club of Chicago's civic committee, defended the city's position. "We think it's essential for the economic future of Chicago," Martin said.

At a later workshop in Des Plaines designed to allow public comment on the program, some residents who live near O'Hare said they have enough problems with the airport and they fear the city's plans would only bring more pollution and noise.

"I know the spin is that these changes will make things better or at least not worse," said Mike Zacher of Mt. Prospect. "I doubt that."

Other residents said they were skeptical about claims that World Gateway would not lead to more flights.

"They're proposing the expansion of terminals. How long before there are new runways?" asked Milan Tomaska of Park Ridge. "I don't know how long we have to argue O'Hare is big enough."

Conspicuous in their absence Thursday were any representatives of Gov. George Ryan or the Illinois Department of Transportation.

"This is the city's thing," said Brad Roseberry, IDOT's project manager for the Peotone airport, who did not attend.

Ryan spokesman Dennis Culloton said the governor would not oppose the World Gateway project because it does not include adding runways at O'Hare.

"In the long term, the Peotone airport is needed to add capacity to the region," Culloton said.