Mayors clamor for revival of western access to O'Hare
Western access to O'Hare International Airport was the reason DuPage County nine years ago reversed its long-running opposition to airport expansion.
In exchange, there would be a new entrance on the west side of the airport, which would include a new terminal that would trigger an economic boon to northern DuPage and southern Cook counties.
But today, the only guarantee communities along the western edge of O'Hare have is that there will be an extension of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway and a western bypass around the airport -- and that they must help raise $300 million of the project's $3.4 billion price tag.
A coalition of mayors say they've been shortchanged by the project, which largely is being funded by the near-doubling of fees on Illinois' tollways.
"We have a strong consensus on the west side," Hanover Park Village President Rodney Craig said. "We've been standing together, and our resolve is to get western access. Don't spend all this money, charge us the tolls and give us nothing in return."
One person sympathizing with the mayors is former DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom -- the man who persuaded county board members in 2003 to drop their opposition to O'Hare modernization.
"We didn't sign up for a bypass," Schillerstrom said. "We signed up for western access to the airport with a terminal and all of the economic benefits that you see on the east side."
Schillerstrom acknowledges he's grateful the tollway has taken over the project and will come up with about $3.1 billion to extend the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway east and build the bypass skirting the airport's west side, linking I-90 to the north and the Tri-State to the south.
He's less thrilled that some towns might have to contribute money for the project.
Schillerstrom serves on the Elgin-O'Hare Western Bypass Finance Committee, which is working to find federal, local or other sources to bridge the $300 million gap between what the tollway will pay and how much the project will cost.
"These municipalities don't have any money," Schillerstrom said. "They shouldn't need to come up with the money, because it's their residents paying the tolls."
Representatives with the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference say they are especially worried about an idea to create a special taxing area for businesses and industries within 1.5 miles of the project.
It would affect such communities as Schaumburg, Itasca, Elk Grove Village, Hanover Park, Roselle and Wood Dale.
The conference is urging state lawmakers to get involved.
"We are hoping they will use their influence to help bring about what we consider to be the most sensible formula for completing and funding western access," said Mark Baloga, the conference's executive director.
Tollway spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said the bypass finance committee is exploring a wide variety of options to help close the $300 million funding gap, including "land donations, federal appropriations, federal loans and the use of local and county taxes or taxing districts."
Another possibility could be to scale back the overall project.
"We can't say right now which part of the project might be scaled back," Abrams wrote in an email. "But if the funding isn't identified, we would certainly consider an alternative to the current project scope if that's what the local communities want."
There's also the issue of when a western access road actually will be built.
The tollway authority's project is being done in phases: The existing Elgin-O'Hare would be widened and converted to a tollway, starting next year. Then, from 2014 to 2017, the road would be extended to the east for almost five miles. The southern part of the bypass would be done from 2018 to 2022, with work on the northern leg planned for 2023 to 2025.
Abrams said it's too soon to say whether the project will include a road that takes motorists directly into the airport. The formal design process will begin this year.
"Put simply, we're just getting started," Abrams wrote. "Many things could change between now and the time the design is finalized and construction begins."
Municipal leaders say they are concerned that construction of the access road won't happen because of delays associated with the western terminal plan.
While tollway officials say they believe it's just a matter of time before the city of Chicago constructs the long-sought western terminal, the poor economy and resistance from United and American Airlines has the plan on the back burner. It hasn't even been determined who would pay for the terminal.
Roselle Mayor Gayle Smolinski said she and other municipal leaders have been told by Chicago Department of Aviation officials that the western terminal is "many, many years down the road."
"It didn't appear to be as definitive as we were led to believe when we first started working on this project," Smolinski said.
Officials from the department of aviation did not respond to written questions submitted by the Daily Herald.
If the western terminal isn't built, mayors say a parking garage with a train or a monorail system would be acceptable. At the very least, Schillerstrom said, the access road should be built.
"Even if we only get a parking lot, that's a step in the right direction," he said. "But we must have access right away, and the sooner we can get a terminal built, the better."
The mayors concede that they don't know how to get the terminal built any sooner. They just don't want to wait 20 years before getting the significant economic boost that western access would provide.
"It's a time for clear-thinking people to sit down, define what the problem is, and solve it," Hanover Park's Craig said. "Because for us on the western side to participate in something that doesn't include access is a waste of our time. Don't waste our time. We want to build our economic engine."