May 3, 2000

Slowly and none too soon, the pieces of a bold vision for Chicago's aviation future are snapping together.

Not everyone likes what they see, yet the logic and promise are so compelling that bipartisan support simply must be forged for the enterprise.

The latest piece, described by Tribune writer John Schmeltzer, is the city's detailed request to Washington for help in expanding the terminals and roadways at O'Hare International Airport.

This is Mayor Richard Daley's "World Gateway" program, announced in concept during last year's re-election campaign and formalized now in plans submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration.

At $3.2 billion it may be the largest single infrastructure improvement ever undertaken by the city. Taxpayers should know it is to be financed, like most of O'Hare, by airline rents and passenger fees.

Boarding gates would be increased by 25 percent, with many wide enough to handle the next generation of double-decked jumbo airliners. There will be two new stand-alone terminals, one of which will require relocation of the airport's central heating and cooling plant. The people-mover train will be extended to a new remote parking deck. New roads will connect the terminal complex to the Northwest Tollway and to Mannheim Road, taking pressure off the main gate to the Kennedy Expressway.

For all its scope, though, Mayor Daley's Gateway plan needs to get even bigger.

A report last month by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club explained why: Daley's land-side expansion won't allow O'Hare to reach its full potential unless the air-side is expanded too--with at least one new runway. The FAA's lifting of flight caps soon will quicken O'Hare's pulse, but ORD can be something more--America's mid-continental hub for international commerce. Fill those shoes and our economy gets a $10 billion annual boost through 2015 and 110,000 new jobs. Leave them empty and foreign carriers will hike to Detroit, Dallas and Denver.

A lack of bipartisan support jeopardizes all.

Daley won't come out for more runways--yet--for fear of further antagonizing powerful Republicans such as Rep. Henry Hyde and State Senate President James "Pate" Phillip. Like Gov. George Ryan, they seem to think that building a small airport at Peotone would make a bigger O'Hare unnecessary. That's simply not so, because international carriers need a gateway that doubles as a major domestic hub--something O'Hare is, and Peotone will never be.

Seeds of compromise exist. Peotone could proceed as a point-to-point and/or freight airport. Noise and pollution efforts at O'Hare could be redoubled. A western O'Hare gate could benefit DuPage County. Airport governance could become a city-state effort.

Politics must not slam shut Gateway's promise.