O'Hare expansion gets go-ahead

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WASHINGTON -- For a long time, it seemed like the various proposals to modernize Chicago's O'Hare Airport and increase its capacity might never get off the ground.

It's still not safe to assume the project will ever take flight -- citizen lawsuits and other potential obstacles still loom. But the plan did take a big step towards takeoff when Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation last month authorizing the O'Hare Modernization Program.

On the day Blagojevich signed the bill, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley proclaimed a modernized O'Hare will reduce delays, saving money for passengers and airlines, and make it easier for travelers to get to and from the Windy City.

Daley also said it will generate $18 billion of annual economic activity on top of the more than $38 billion it generates today and create 195,000 new jobs in the state.

State and Chicago officials are hoping to win approval sometime next year from the Federal Aviation Administration. If that happens, and everything proceeds according to plan, the entire project would be completed within 10 years.

The new runway -- the airport's first runway addition since 1971 -- would open in about 2006, providing the first big, tangible flight benefit for travelers by helping airlines operate more efficiently in poor weather.

The relocation of three of the existing seven runways would follow, creating what officials describe as a more modern, parallel configuration that is similar to the ones used at airports in Atlanta, Dallas and Denver.

The program also includes improved road access, new terminals and additional parking.

The city contends the project, once completed, will reduce overall delays by 79% and delays related to poor weather by 95%.

The capacity would expand to 1.6 million airline operations a year, up from 900,000. All of this, the mayor and governor maintain, is a necessity to maintain O'Hare as an economic engine for the region.

But first things first. At the moment, officials are focused on the next step in the process: satisfying the FAA regarding the project's environmental impact, safety and design.

In June, with the modernization bill already passed by the state legislature, the FAA established a Chicago Area Modernization Program Office to oversee and coordinate its activities related to the O'Hare project.

An FAA spokesman said the length of the review will depend on the complexity of the issues and cannot be estimated.

A spokesman for the mayor said the office expects more lawsuits. But he said the city is confident if the FAA rules in the project's favor, "we'll be victorious in court."

Another potential obstacle: the projected $6.6 billion cost.

An agreement with airlines on the first $2.9 billion in funding includes the sale of $1.9 billion worth of bonds, $658 million from passenger charges and $363 million from the federal government's Airport Improvement Program, which is funded by ticket taxes.

Some of that money would not become available until the airport reaches a targeted level of takeoffs and landings.

To contact reporter Andrew Compart, send e-mail to [email protected].

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