Documents Revealed Under Court Order Show
"Secret Master Plan" for O'Hare Airport

DECEMBER 30, 1998

Documents released by Chicago under court order show the city considered razing hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses to build runways at O'Hare International Airport. As recently as 1995 the city's Department of Aviation also looked into moving several major streets, railroad tracks, and even a cemetery to make way for runways, according to the documents.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled December 17 that Chicago had to release the documents, sought in a 3-year-old suit filed by Bensenville, Elmhurst, Wood Dale, DuPage County, U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), and state Sen. James "Pate" Philip (R-Wood Dale) -- all foes of expanding O'Hare. In their suit the suburban opponents of O'Hare noise accused the city of having broken the law by failing to obtain certificates of approval from the state Department of Transportation for O'Hare development projects.

City lawyers Tuesday made available to reporters a sampling of the documents after the court rejected a claim by the city that the documents shouldn't be made public because they were part of its decision-making process.

Joseph Karaganis, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Tuesday that the documents were part of a secret "master plan" that Chicago had been developing to expand O'Hare. "The documents show that the Department of Aviation deliberately kept these plans secret," said Karaganis, who had not seen them as of Tuesday night. "They didn't want to call it a master plan because that would require public participation in the process."

But after spending three years and $1.5 million in lawyers' fees to fight the release of the materials, Chicago officials Tuesday dismissed the documents as "outdated," "dead," and "abandoned." "They're not relevant, they're outdated and they're not going anywhere," said Department of Aviation Commissioner Mary Rose Loney. Loney said the runway discussions ended in mid-1995, when the focus turned to a $2 billion capital improvement plan to expand gates and terminals at O'Hare and improve access on area roadways.

The documents indicate that the city looked at consultants' proposals for six different runway configurations, of which perhaps one or two were to be pursued. Five of the six proposals each would have required relocating 500 to 550 homes and 2,250 to 2,450 residents. Runway configurations that would extend beyond the airport's southern and western boundaries would have required relocating the Garden Horseshoe neighborhood, a graveyard near St. John's Catholic Church and a water tower -- all in Bensenville. The plans also would have required moving: 28 businesses; Mt. Prospect, Irving Park and Mannheim Roads; Union Pacific Railroad tracks; and Willow and Higgins Creeks.

Karaganis had predicted that the documents would reveal plans by Chicago to boost capacity at O'Hare by 500,000 departures and landings annually.

Last year, O'Hare handled about 884,000 takeoffs and landings. O'Hare officials expect only a slight increase when takeoffs and landings for 1998 are tallied.

An internal Aviation Department memo dated Sept. 10, 1993 predicted that, with a new runway, operations at O'Hare would grow to 940,000 takeoffs and landings annually by 2005. The memo based its forecast on data from the Landrum & Brown engineering consulting firm. A March 1993 memo from Landrum & Brown questioned using the term "delay reduction" for a process that essentially would expand the airport's capacity. "To the suburbanites living near the airport, providing capability to handle more annual operations is capacity enhancement, pure and simple," it said. "Any attempt by the city to call it something else will be seen as disingenuous."

Another 1993 Landrum & Brown memo warned: "The firestorm over O'Hare development must be staged as early as possible to avoid the mayor's re-election campaign." Mayor Richard Daley was elected to a third term in April 1995.

Aviation Department spokesman Dennis Culloton said the runway plans simply reflected "brainstorming" by consultants. But one document acknowledged that the department discussed details of the six runway configurations with the Federal Aviation Administration, United Airlines, and American Airlines.

Source: Chicago Tribune (c) 1998