O'Hare Airport Expansion Case in Illinois Appellate Court

MARCH 18, 2002

The Illinois Appeals Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday, March 19 in a case that could have significant consequences for O’Hare Airport expansion plans. An unfavorable decision by the Second District Court of Appeals against Chicago could result in the delay, perhaps indefinitely, of the $3.6 billion World Gateway Program, a massive plan to build new two new terminals, as many as 40 aircraft gates, an expanded light rail system and new parking facilities.

The suit, filed by DuPage County, the Village of Bensenville and the cities of Elmhurst and Wood Dale, asserts that the work was begun without the necessary approval of the state. The suit points to state law that requires that “any” alternation of an airport must receive certification from the Illinois Department of Transportation. The state has argued that a $3.6 billion construction project at O’Hare is not an “alteration”—an assertion that plaintiffs have argued flies in the face of case law and common sense.

"How can a $3.6 billion expansion not be considered an alteration of an airport? We’re not talking about adding a windsock," said Joseph Karaganis, counsel for the plaintiffs.

If the Appeals Court agrees with the plaintiffs, Chicago could be forced to submit a formal application to the state for certification, a lengthy and public process in which Chicago would have to justify the expansion. This would be separate and in addition to any approvals that would be required under state law for the Daley/Ryan expansion plan.

The suit, originally filed in 1995, sought to block construction of $65 million worth of holding pads for airplanes waiting for terminal gates to open. Since then, while the case was being litigated, the pads were built and Chicago moved ahead with the World Gateway project, all without state certification. Last year, the city awarded a $1-billion contract—the largest in city history—for the first of the World Gateway terminals. The contract went to a firm represented by Victor Reyes, a senior advisor to Mayor Daley, only weeks after he left his government post.

Stealth-like, O’Hare expansion has been going on for years. In the mid-1980s, O’Hare built a 1,400-foot runway extension without state certification. The plaintiffs have contended projects such as the holding pads and, more audaciously, World Gateway were a smokescreen for incremental enlargement of the airport without having to bother with full public disclosure, analysis and justification. Incredibly, the Daley administration has maintained that the expenditure of $3.6 billion in World Gateway construction projects had nothing to do with expanding airport capacity. Chicago had unveiled World Gateway while it was still denying that O’Hare needed more capacity and before it unveiled its plan for airport expansion with such urgency that it demanded that Congress immediately pass legislation mandating expansion.

In a sidelight, this case resulted in the disclosure of tens of thousands of secret planning documents that proved that Chicago was planning to build a series of parallel runways. At the time, the Daley administration ridiculed the disclosure as meaningless conjecture, arguing that O’Hare didn’t need to be expanded, and that it had no plans to expand O’Hare Airport. Last summer, Daley revealed nearly identical, but larger, expansion plans for the airport.

In 2000, Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan sought to weigh in on the case on the side of the plaintiffs, but was prohibited from doing so by DuPage County Judge Bonnie Wheaton. In September 2000 she dismissed the suit, and the case has been on appeal since.

Source: Suburban O'Hare Commission