DES PLAINES, IL (AP) The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave the go-ahead to a $15-billion makeover of O’Hare International Airport designed to relieve chronic flight delays by adding some runways, reconfiguring others and building another terminal.
But hours after the announcement, federal judges in Washington granted a stay of the project while they consider an emergency motion filed by opponents of the plan to halt construction.
The airport project would force approximately 2,600 people and approximately 200 businesses in the Chicago suburbs of Bensenville, Des Plaines and Elk Grove Village to relocate.
“We think the federal courts will find this plan to be dead on arrival,” said Derek Gaubatz, director of litigation at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The group represents a church, which owns a cemetery with 1,300 tombs dating back to the 1800s that would have to be moved to make way for the airport expansion.
St. John’s United Church of Christ and the suburbs of Bensenville and Elk Grove Village were among the opponents who asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington to block the FAA’s decision to allow the O’Hare project.
In their order, the judges said the emergency stay “should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits” of the motion sought by opponents of the plan.
FAA spokesman Greg Martin said the agency was working on a response. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office said it planned to file a response with the court.
“We are confident the O’Hare Modernization Program will withstand any and all judicial challenges and we will implement the program as planned,” program spokesman Roderick Drew said in a statement.
Even before the announcement, the city had heavy equipment in place ready to start the massive construction project as soon as the FAA gave its approval. At a celebratory afternoon news conference, Daley said “let’s go” into a walkie-talkie and construction workers started breaking ground for a new northern runway.
O’Hare hasn’t had a new runway since 1971, said Rosemarie Andolino, director of the O’Hare expansion project.
When the project is done, O’Hare should be able to handle 1.2 million landings and takeoffs annually, 300,000 more than now, the FAA said. Delays would fall from 17.1 minutes to 5.8 minutes on average, agency projections show.
“O’Hare is now cleared for takeoff,” FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey said from Washington. “This means more flights, much better on-time performance for literally millions of Americans around the country that use O’Hare.”
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat whose district includes Chicago’s South Side and south suburbs, criticized the O’Hare plan and called for a third Chicago-area airport in cornfields approximately 35 mi. south of the city.
Jackson said the O’Hare project “will saddle a generation of Chicago taxpayers and travelers with billions of dollars of debt and an airport that’s as overcrowded and delay-prone as today’s.”
The expansion plan calls for the intersecting runway layout to be refigured to a design of six parallel and two diagonal runways, which planners said would make it easier for planes to take off and land. The first runway would be opened in 2007. The plan also called for new taxiways, a new terminal building, parking spaces for oversized planes and jet bridges.
Parallel runways offer “tremendous safety advantages,” Blakey said. She said the new configuration would reduce by approximately half the number of planes crossing active runways.
But the plan has drawn intense criticism from opponents –– in large part because the 440-acre expansion would require that the city purchase and raze homes, relocate businesses and move St. Johannes Cemetery.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, United Airlines CEO Glenn Tilton and scores of other political and business leaders trooped out to O’Hare for Daley’s news conference and offered fulsome praise for the mayor, saying the O’Hare makeover would not have happened without him.
Daley also was generous in his praise but took pains to single out former Gov. George Ryan, saying that “without his leadership we might not be here this afternoon.”
Ryan, whose trial on racketeering corruption charges has dominated headlines in Illinois for weeks, did not attend.
Critics said the city has exaggerated the benefits of the expansion and underestimated its cost. In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation also said the city has underestimated the project’s cost.
The report also said the city has applied for an “unprecedented” $528 million in grants for the project, along with an additional $248 million for capital improvements over the next 20 years.
Daley maintained that the city will have the money to complete the expansion, said that federal funds would cover approximately 10 percent of the total cost, while revenue bonds and passenger facility charges would make up the rest.
Barry Cooper, who led the FAA’s review of the project, said it was not a problem to approve the project without 100 percent of funding in place.
“The city has a reasonable plan to pay … and we have no reason to believe it will not be executed,” Cooper said.