Talk of adding gates on O'Hare's west side and an underground people-mover are positive signals that the suburbs' clout drought at the airport is over, according to DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin.
Chicago announced a massive redevelopment program Friday at O'Hare that includes nine new gates at Terminal 5 and redeveloping the outdated Terminal 2.
Missing from the rollout was a mention of DuPage County's economic holy grail -- a western terminal. However, the city is contemplating building new concourses to the west once the market demands it.
Preliminary diagrams show options for concourses on O'Hare's west side near an access from the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway extension, currently under construction, and an underground people-mover train that would transport passengers to other terminals.
"They're moving economic activity closer to the western side. We will have a toll roadway outside their gates where thousands will drive by. ... It's going to happen," Cronin said.
Although the city has identified $300 million to upgrade Terminal 5, there's no funding yet for the other projects.
Revenues for Terminal 5 work will come from fees tacked onto plane tickets, financing that requires a buy-in from American and United Airlines. The two carriers sued Chicago over parts of its modernization program before but are now negotiating with the city.
"You can't force-feed the issue. We have to see what the industry can support," Cronin said.
"O'Hare fuels the entire region's economy. I really believe we can further leverage it to impact the western side of the airport. The capital improvements outlined alone will bring more than 1,000 jobs and an increased economic impact across the region."
The suburbs have had a tumultuous relationship with O'Hare and Chicago leaders, but Cronin said he's collaborating with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans.
"We've had multiple meetings and they've been great partners," Cronin said.
The Illinois tollway is extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway (Route 390) east, and it's expected to reach O'Hare by 2019 or so.
Somewhat nebulous plans had included a parking lot and a bus to take people entering the airport from Route 390 to the main terminals. The prospect of an underground people-mover train and concourses is a major step-up.
"I believe this is a very important building block. This plan will realize its full potential and work most effectively when passengers are coming in from the west," Cronin said.
The city intends to expand Terminal 5, which opened 23 years ago, by 25 percent.
Plans for Terminal 2 would convert the underused facility into a central hub with a new U.S. Customs and Border Patrol center and TSA screening stations.
O'Hare's been notorious for delays, but a centralized terminal would help fliers make connecting flights, officials said.