Feds Pledge $337 Million for Chicago Airport

Published January 1, 2006

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport expansion project moved ahead on two fronts in November when it received a formal pledge of funding from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and won the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by two Chicago suburbs and a cemetery owner.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta joined Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago on November 21 to announce the FAA had formally committed more than $337 million to the first phase of the project. Airport Improvement Program grants of $20 million will be paid to the city annually over 15 years, Mineta said. The remaining $37.2 million, from a separate federal grant, will be paid to the city over the next five years.

The FAA’s pledge of funding clears the way for Chicago to borrow up to $1.5 billion for the $2.88 billion initial phase. The financial support of the federal government was needed before the city could move forward with its borrowing plan.

The city is seeking approval to spend another $1 billion derived from the $4.50 tax paid by air passengers on every ticket sold at O’Hare. The FAA has not made a decision on that request.

Would Be Largest Ever

Phase 1 consists of about $3 billion of work to build a new runway and extend two others by 2007. Total cost of the expansion, which includes building additional runways and terminals, is projected at $15 billion. That does not include several billion dollars of expected roadway improvements around the airport to improve traffic flow.

The airport expansion would be the largest public works project in U.S. history.

Mineta said the first phase of the project would increase the airport’s flight capacity by 18 percent, or about 480 flights a day. The first phase is expected to be completed in 2010.

“American taxpayers are making indeed a very good investment,” Mineta said at the news conference.

Lawsuit Dismissed, May Resume

Mineta’s announcement of federal funding for the airport expansion project came a few days after Judge David Coar of the U.S. District Court of Northern Illinois dismissed a lawsuit claiming Chicago’s condemnation of the St. Johannes Cemetery, at the west edge of the existing airport property, violates Constitutional and legal protections of religious freedom.

About two weeks earlier Coar had issued a temporary restraining order preventing Chicago from relocating the cemetery’s 1,300 graves. The order also blocked Chicago from razing homes and businesses in the villages of Bensenville and Elk Grove Village, which abut the airport and joined the cemetery owners in trying to block the expansion project.

Rather than being disheartened by the judge’s decision to drop the restraining order, and the federal government’s decision to help fund the expansion project, village officials said they are happy. This fall the U.S. Court of Appeals declined to rule on a lawsuit filed by objectors to the project, because the federal government had not officially provided any funding.

“The FAA told the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC that the court couldn’t proceed with our suit against expansion because the Federal Aviation Administration had not yet awarded the OMP [O’Hare Modernization Project] any money,” said John Geils, village president of Bensenville. “Now we can. For the first time in this entire process, we can argue the pros and cons of expansion in a neutral forum.”

Opponents Will Appeal

Geils and other leading opponents of the project said they plan to appeal Coar’s dismissal of their lawsuit claiming Chicago’s condemnation of the cemetery violates Constitutional and legal protections of religious freedom.

Bensenville and Elk Grove Village have been fighting the expansion for years. The airport expansion plan includes the seizure of properties from the two communities. That became possible only two years ago, when the Illinois General Assembly changed state law to allow Chicago to seize property in neighboring municipalities, the only time in state history that one municipality has been given the power to take property from another municipality, according to Elk Grove Village President Craig Johnson.

Jobs in Jeopardy

Elk Grove Village has 35,000 residents and more than 100,000 weekday jobs, more than any other Chicago suburban community. Johnson said if the airport expansion plan is fully realized, the village could lose up to 1,000 businesses and 30,000 jobs.

“They’re taking away parts of the state’s largest … industrial park,” Johnson said. “There is nothing for compensation for water lines and sewer lines that would be cut. They’re all looped together. Fixing that will cost us millions and millions of dollars, and there’s nothing in the law to help us pay for that.

“I can’t believe how the legislature and my fellow mayors didn’t rise up against this,” Johnson said. “I think other mayors were just saying, ‘Thank God it isn’t my town.’ I told them it could be your town next time. This sets a precedent that people some day are going to be sorry they let happen.”

Bensenville has less industry than Elk Grove Village, so the main threat the proposed expansion poses in that community is to homes. The village estimates 2,600 residents would lose their homes under the plan.

Village officials in both towns have had police patrolling village borders to stop surveyors hired by Chicago from mapping out properties that could be seized.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.