A $15 billion expansion of O'Hare Airport designed to ease some of the nation's worst flight delays was halted by an appeals court Friday just hours after it received the go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The city was expecting final approval and started to break ground on the airport's first runway since 1971 after Mayor Richard M. Daley said "Let's go" into a walkie talkie at a celebratory news conference.
But hours later, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington granted a stay of the project while it considers an emergency request filed by opponents, who argued it should be stopped because it would desecrate a cemetery with 1,300 tombs dating back to the 1800s.
"We think the federal courts will find this plan to be dead on arrival," said Derek Gaubatz, director of litigation for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represented the church that owns the cemetery.
FAA spokesman Greg Martin said the agency was working on a response Friday night.
Daley's office said it planned to file a response with the court. Project spokesman Roderick Drew said in a statement that city officials remained confident the plan would "withstand any and all judicial challenges."
The project _ championed for years by the mayor _ calls for new and reconfigured runways, another terminal and parking for oversized planes.
Critics have fought the project for years because it will require the razing of nearly 500 homes and the relocating of nearly 200 businesses and the St. Johannes Cemetery in the suburbs of Bensenville, Des Plaines and Elk Grove Village.
The FAA said the expansion would let O'Hare handle 1.2 million landings and takeoffs a year, 300,000 more than now. Average delays would go from 17.1 minutes to 5.8 minutes, according to agency projections. And it said safety would increase because the new layout would cut in half the number of planes crossing open runways.
The eight-year plan calls for reconfiguring the intersecting runways so that there are six parallel and two diagonal runways. The first runway would open in 2007.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat whose district includes Chicago's South Side and southern suburbs, criticized the O'Hare plan, saying it could "saddle a generation of Chicago taxpayers and travelers with billions of dollars of debt and an airport that's as overcrowded and delay-prone as today's."
He called for the building of a third Chicago-area airport in cornfields about 35 miles south of the city.
Associated Press writer Maura Kelly Lannan contributed to this report.
On the Net:
O'Hare Airport: http://www.ohare.com
Federal Aviation Administration: http://www.faa.gov
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