What $8.5 billion O'Hare airport revamp will mean for the suburbs

O'Hare's $8.5 billion makeover breezed through the Chicago City Council Wednesday and included a photo op at the airport.

But first came months of hardball negotiations between the city and United and American Airlines.

Some of the sticking points involved projects crucial for suburbs west of O'Hare International Airport, such as a western terminal and extending runway 9-Right/27-Left, city officials explained.

The extension "was a hard-fought part of the negotiations," Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said. The airlines "didn't want to do it ... they didn't want to pay," for the $334 million extension.

"I said, 'we have to do it,'" Evans said, adding that city officials had pledged their commitment to the federal government and residents.

The new length will enable 9R-27L to handle takeoffs for heavier aircraft and is a key piece in balancing noise between the north and south airfields.

Another sore point was cracking open the west side of O'Hare. The updated plan allows for a gradual, demand-driven evolution to a western terminal long sought by DuPage County.

By 2026, airport employees will be able to enter O'Hare from the west via Route 390, park their cars and undergo security screening in a new facility intended to serve 10,000 people. They will then be bussed to work.

As overall activity at O'Hare grows, parking and services will be expanded to handle passengers. At that point, an underground pedestrian walkway or automated people mover will convey travelers to satellite concourses and terminals, Evans said.

"We're planning those employee facilities so in a modular way we can build a parking structure, build a terminal - it can develop ... on its own."

Although it's not obvious, the fine print of the plan does allow for a western terminal, Evans affirmed.

"The east side of O'Hare is over capacity, so you have to balance it," she said.

Eighty designs for the Terminal Area Plan were considered before a final version was selected.

The first phase of the project includes: replacing Terminal 2, revamping Terminal 5 so it will handle domestic and international flights, building satellite concourses and adding a tunnel with a people mover, pedestrian walkway and baggage conveyance.

The revamped Terminal 2 - dubbed the O'Hare Global Terminal - is intended to streamline international arrivals with enhanced U.S. Customs and Border Protection Facilities. Although outdated, Terminal 2's central location makes it like "waterfront property" and it will become a jewel in O'Hare's crown, Evans said.

"You've got the hotel across the street, you've got United Airlines to the left and American Airlines to the right," Evans said. "It's providing that connectivity that's so essential in aviation."

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Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans Daily Herald File Photo
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