Chicago left behind past battles with the suburbs in opening a new runway at O'Hare International Airport Thursday, but new turbulence lies ahead over noise and a promised but elusive western terminal.
Runway 10-Center, 28-Center will fundamentally change how air traffic moves in the region by moving to an east-west operation almost 100 percent of the time. It also adds a fourth parallel runway and reduces use of the crisscross system.
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Both changes make O'Hare safer and mean fewer delays, the Federal Aviation Administration says, but it's going to create more noise for some neighborhoods while sparing others.
The runway in the south half of O'Hare sits on the former site of St. Johannes Cemetery, a historical graveyard and the epicenter of a bitter battle between Chicago and village of Bensenville over O'Hare expansion.
"Bensenville residents have sacrificed a lot for this to move forward," said Bensenville Village President Frank Soto, who brokered a deal with Chicago to end litigation over the cemetery. Soto said he realized the airport expansion means economic development that's helping Bensenville grow but "the quality of life issues have to be addressed."
Some neighborhoods in Chicago east of O'Hare, plus sections of Bensenville, Itasca, Park Ridge, Des Plaines and Wood Dale in the flight path, will get an earful. Communities where it should be a little quieter include Elk Grove Village, Franklin Park and Northlake.
But there's also fear about what the new configurations will mean for nighttime noise.
"We're concerned with what the impact will be," Itasca Mayor Jeff Pruyn said.
Commissioning the runway, dubbed 10C/28C, will mark the completion of the first phase of an airfield rebuild allowing for six parallel runways.
The modernization plan calls for reducing use of existing, crisscrossing runways that stretch diagonally across the airport, meaning fewer flights in northwest and southeast directions.
Sen. Dick Durbin, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth were among local and federal leaders at the runway's official opening.
"Today we're making history again," Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie S. Andolino said amid the roar of jet noise. "This runway will improve the efficiency of the national aviation system."
The plan also included a western terminal, but the stagnant economy and pushback from United and American airlines has put it on the back burner.
Communities around the proposed terminal are taking heart from the extension of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east from Itasca into the airport being undertaken by the Illinois tollway.
"We hope once the Elgin-O'Hare is built, we will get some real western access," Pruyn said.
The city has promised a parking lot and bus to transport travelers to the existing terminals but calls the new terminal a "market-driven" project.
"I know that will be temporary and I'm OK with that, but once the expressway is done we need to look at true western access," Pruyn said.
Duckworth said she is lobbying Chicago hard on that issue, giving the example of Elk Grove Village's industrial park that would benefit from western access.
"It's a step-by-step process," the Hoffman Estates Democrat said. "But I want more (than a bus). The train has to come out, at least," she said, referring to O'Hare's people mover that takes passengers from parking lots to the existing terminals.
For years, the project was embroiled in a legal battle between Chicago and families with loved ones buried in the former St. Johannes Cemetery, located right in the middle of the runway. The city prevailed in court, however, and more than 1,400 graves have been relocated.
The new runway stretches 10,800 feet long by 200 feet wide and is capable of handling large aircraft such as the Boeing 747-800. It will be used predominantly for arrivals in all weather conditions.
As of next October, O'Hare will have the capacity to handle significantly more flights. For example, east-to-west departures in good weather could jump from 100 flights an hour to a potential 150, the FAA estimated. Officials noted, however, that growth like that won't happen overnight and is contingent on the economy.
With the changes, 70 percent of aircraft movements are anticipated to be east to west, and 30 percent will be west to east.
Finishing the runway marks the end of Phase One of the $8 billion O'Hare Modernization Program. Phase One includes extending a runway and building 10-Center/28-Center on the south end of O'Hare plus another runway on the far north side, completed in 2008.
Phase Two includes constructing a runway on the south tip of O'Hare slated for a 2015 completion, plus a new runway and an extended runway on the north side of the airfield set for commissioning in 2020.
Originally, all three Phase Two projects were supposed to have been commissioned together. But a dispute between Chicago and United and American airlines over funding has made building the new north runway an issue expected to be negotiated this year.
Meanwhile, some in the airport's shadow want the FAA to update its noise standards so more homes can qualify for soundproofing.
The issue has drawn attention from lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Michael Quigley, a Chicago Democrat, who has appealed to the FAA to find alternate routes.
Duckworth added she was "working with the FAA to try and minimize the noise."