Sep. 25--The long drought at O'Hare International Airport--almost 35 years without new runways--appears on the verge of ending with a nod this week from the Federal Aviation Administration.
But Chicago's plan to reconfigure O'Hare, the most complex and expensive airport expansion project in U.S. history, is layered with uncertainties. A Tribune analysis of thousands of pages of airport and FAA documents raises questions about how many years of relief the expanded airport will provide before debilitating delays return, whether a huge jump in the number of planes taxiing across runways will jeopardize safety and what the project's ultimate cost will be.
Chicago has promised that its $14.7 billion plan virtually will eliminate late and canceled flights during bad weather. Initially, FAA officials did not analyze the calculations underlying those rosy predictions. When they did, at the Tribune's request, the agency found that Chicago's claims were overstated.
FAA documents also warn that major flight delays could return just five years after the city finishes reconfiguring the runways.
Nevertheless, the FAA is expected to approve this week the most ambitious part of the city's expansion, a plan to untangle O'Hare's intersecting runways with a network of parallel ones. The FAA's decision will allow Chicago to start razing homes and businesses in Elk Grove Village and Bensenville immediately and to dig up a religious cemetery established near fruit orchards 55 years before the Wright brothers' first powered flight.
A green light from the FAA would come before the federal government finishes assessing, as required by law, whether the benefits of the expansion exceed its huge costs. That analysis will determine whether the project will receive any federal funding.
"I've been concerned all along that there is too much closeness between the city and the FAA and that somebody at the FAA has taken out a rubberstamp and said, 'OK, go ahead and do it. Assess all this money on the people who come to the airport. Don't worry about it,'" said Kenneth Mead, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
City officials plan to pay for the project in part with federal airport grants and money from ticket taxes. In addition, the city will issue airport bonds, which will be repaid with O'Hare revenues, including fees airlines pay to land planes and lease gates, and a cut of what vendors charge for parking, rental cars and food. Some of those costs will trickle down to travelers, who are likely to see higher ticket prices.
It's not clear exactly what the final price tag will be for the city's plan. The bulk of Chicago's airport-expansion budget hinges on educated guesses about how much O'Hare will receive from the federal government, what interest rates will be years from now when financing is needed for various parts of the project and what the financially shaky airline industry will be willing to pay in increased airport fees.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill will have a key role in deciding how much federal funding they can grant the O'Hare project without starving other airports. City officials said the project deserves $2 billion in ticket taxes and grants because delays at O'Hare cascade across the country and can cripple the nation's air system.
"I want to break ground because time costs money to us building the runways and to our passengers," said Rosemarie Andolino, executive director of the O'Hare Modernization Program. "What kind of value can you place on someone's time when you miss your son's Little League game because you are sitting in a plane on a runway waiting to take off? That's the MasterCard commercial. Time is priceless. That's why we need to modernize O'Hare."
The city's $14.7 billion cost estimate for the expansion does not include interest the airport will have to pay on borrowed money. When asked to estimate those costs so the Tribune could determine the project's total price tag, Andolino declined to do so.