Suburbs still want western terminal at O'Hare

A western terminal and its promise as a cash cow driving economic growth helped convince suburbs around O'Hare to drop resistance to airport expansion and join Chicago in its quest for more runways.

But now with uncertainty about the western terminal's future — when and if it will be built at all — local leaders are adjusting expectations.

“I think it will happen but we have some big obstacles,” DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin said.

After months of feuding, the city with United and American Airlines announced a deal March 14 that ends a lawsuit by the carriers and allows for construction of a runway at O'Hare International Airport's southern end.

Absent from the pact is the western terminal, estimated to cost about $2 billion. The airlines and Chicago agreed to kick other outstanding issues down the road to 2013. United and American opposed the terminal, expected to be used by smaller rival airlines.

“The western terminal complex will only be developed as demand dictates,” Chicago Department of Aviation officials said in an e-mail Friday, adding that “only the users of this facility will be responsible for its costs.”

That puts the future of a western terminal in the hands of United and American's competitors. But with the shaky economy affecting air travel, it's questionable when or if willing investors will step up.

The vision for the airport's western side included extending the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east from its terminus in Itasca into O'Hare along with a terminal. That was anticipated to trigger development with restaurants, shops and industry rivaling towns to the east like Rosemont.

The expressway project is inching forward as state planners search for funding. Chicago would build parking and provide transport — likely buses — to existing terminals once the expressway reaches O'Hare.

Bensenville Village President Frank Soto in 2009 negotiated a $16 million deal with Chicago ending years of lawsuits hampering airport expansion.

Two years later, Soto still thinks western access is an economic engine for the area. But “whether it's a four-cylinder or an eight-cylinder depends on whether it's a parking garage or a terminal. A terminal's the best option because it creates many more opportunities,” Soto said.

Cronin agreed, noting that the economic “promise will not be realized without the terminal,” he said. “If you're talking about a roadway and a hole in the fence with a parking lot, it's not my vision.”

Historically, DuPage suburbs along with Elk Grove Village fought O'Hare expansion, which involved taking a chunk out of northeast Bensenville. But in 2003, former DuPage Chairman Robert Schillerstrom convinced his board to change course despite opposition from longtime Bensenville Village President John Geils.

Schillerstrom and Geils are no longer in office and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley will be succeeded by Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel in May.

“I'm anxious to sit down with Mayor-elect Emanuel and have a frank discussion,” Cronin said.

“There's a certain amount of uncertainty because of the transition. My vision of western access must include the terminal and western access — there's no doubt about it.”

As to the possibility of the terminal dropping off the radar screen, Soto doesn't blame the city.

“It's not an issue the city of Chicago had control over,” he said. But, he'd rather see the terminal built first, before the runway.

The soft economy and high fuel prices will continue to dog the western terminal for now, aviation expert and DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman said.

“Skeptics forget that the expressway will likely bring much development to the communities west of O'Hare regardless of whether a new terminal is built,” he said.

“A new terminal, however, would immeasurably change things.”