The dream of building a western access road to O'Hare International Airport has been languishing for decades -- even though it has won support from nearly every local actor: Chicago and the suburbs; Republicans and Democrats; business and labor; even Cubs and Sox fans.
So why hasn't a project with such universal support been completed? The Illinois Toll Highway Authority and the Canadian Pacific Railway have been engaged in a lengthy dispute regarding the air rights above a rail-yard that lies along the proposed path of the western access road. Canadian Pacific argues that a bridge over the property would negatively affect its rail operations. Meanwhile, thousands of jobs, millions of dollars in potential revenue, and the environmental benefits of less congestion with a completed western access road to O'Hare are twisting in the wind.
In disputes of this kind, the governing authority is a rather obscure federal agency called the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. That board recently requested the Tollway and Canadian Pacific enter mediation to reach a mutually beneficial solution and enable the western access project to go forward. In response to this request, the Tollway and Canadian Pacific have agreed to mediation in August to resolve any outstanding issues. This is a major step toward ending an impasse that has lasted for years.
Why is the western access project so important? First, building a western access road to O'Hare would create nearly 20,000 jobs -- 7,400 in direct construction work and more than 3,000 in engineering. Another 6,000 indirect jobs would be created for suppliers of equipment and other services.
Once the project is completed, the region would realize 65,000 permanent jobs -- 44,000 in Cook County and nearly half that many in DuPage. A new western access road to O'Hare would bring with it 10 million square-feet of new office, retail and industrial space, along with 7,000 new hotel rooms. It would result in an estimated $29 million in new annual tax revenue and increase the regional economic output by $6 billion.
Along with these economic benefits would come significant environmental improvements -- by reducing the traffic and delays that currently plague O'Hare. In its 2011 report, the Governor's Advisory Council on Western Access to O'Hare estimated that residents could save $145 million annually through more efficient travel, including the addition of new dedicated bus lanes along the roadway. This would work out to an annual savings of more than $400 per driver -- a considerable sum in anybody's book.
Moreover, the western access project is critical to the O'Hare Modernization Plan, which calls for building a new parking lot with bus connections to existing terminals as well as a new terminal with underground access to midfield concourses. Chicago aviation officials have made clear that these steps are necessary to keep O'Hare competitive and to serve an increasing number of passengers more efficiently in years to come.
It's important to note that funding for the road is not an issue. The Illinois Toll Highway Authority has the ability to finance the project to completion. All it needs to finish the job is an agreement with Canadian Pacific. And that's where the U.S. Surface Transportation Board's recent directive for mediation between the parties could finally break the logjam. Since the Tollway and Canadian Pacific have each agreed to mediation, this provides the best chance to date of bringing their dispute to a close.
After a public meeting on the subject in April, 24 local officials and I joined together in sending a letter to the Acting Chairman of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, expressing support for the western access project and our concern at its delay. The 24 signatories to the letter included local business and labor leaders as well as local mayors and public officials from both sides of the aisle.
In light of the parties' agreeing to mediation, the long-sought western access project is closer than ever to becoming a reality. All of us who live and work here should encourage a successful conclusion to these negotiations -- for good jobs and economic growth, a healthier environment, and a brighter future for years to come.
Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Hoffman Estates, represents the 8th District of Illinois.