Western access to O'Hare? Don't hold your breath.

 
 
Posted2/5/2012 5:00 AM

A week ago, I promised you a story on how the O'Hare International Airport western access plan morphed into the western bypass. It stemmed from a meeting among several members of the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference, a Daily Herald Editorial Board representative (me) and Robert Sanchez, who covers county government and whatever else I ask of him.

The mayors wanted to share their state legislative agenda. Their "critical" issue was to include police officers and firefighters in the pension reform package under consideration by the General Assembly. But I sensed almost an equal amount of passion among the mayors for reviving some semblance of what used to be called the O'Hare Western Access plan. It was the reason the DuPage County Board in 2003 gave up years of opposition to O'Hare expansion. This was not a popular decision in many quarters, most notably towns dead in the path of the new runways.

 

"There are people who still dislike me greatly because of that," former county board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom told Sanchez while he was working on today's Page 1 story.

But Schillerstrom and others perhaps saw the writing on the wall, realized you can fight Chicago city hall only so long and were promised a western path to the airport and the gleaming new terminal that would be built there. It's easy to forget this occurred in much more prosperous times. The idea of massive O'Hare growth didn't seem like a pipe dream; it seemed inevitable.

Today, as the airlines struggle along with our economy, they're formally opposed to a new terminal. (Some upstart airline like Southwest might come in there and make things even more difficult for existing O'Hare giants such as American and United, suggests Hanover Park Village President Rodney Craig.) Meanwhile, the tollway authority, you might have heard, almost doubled tolls to pay for a $12 billion road expansion plan that included an expressway to run along the western edge of the airport, linking I-294 and I-90. And to get even that much out of the deal, the towns that will benefit are being asked to kick in $300 million.

So when we asked the Chicago Department of Aviation and the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority how this became that, no one bent over backward to answer our questions. In fact, there was some near hostility. One PR person at the aviation department asked Sanchez if this was going to be "a negative story." She also barked at Sanchez for not following protocol by first phoning Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino's office. Later, he was told Andolino "might" be available, but meanwhile was asked to submit his questions in writing. He did so, but late Friday was asked if we might hold the story. At this writing, we're still waiting for those written answers. This all transpired over the course of the workweek, mind you.

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We fared better at the toll authority. Sanchez asked to talk to someone, was asked to submit questions in writing and received his answers about 2 p.m. Friday. That's better than nothing, of course, and it allows the responders to be more accurate and precise. But it also enables them to polish their spin, making their answers perhaps less informative. Most significantly, it makes it nigh on impossible for reporters to ask logical follow-up questions.

Hey, I get that this might not be everyone's favorite topic. The toll authority took a beating for the big toll increase. But, no kidding, we weren't trying to paint anyone as a villain. In many ways, the undercurrent of this story is how the lousy economy has dampened if not destroyed some grandiose plans. That's a sad refrain, but there's no reason people should be hesitant to talk about it.

jdavis@dailyherald.com

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