The massive $8.5 million upgrade of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, which passed the City Council on March 28, may be a double-edged sword to the surrounding communities.
On the bright side, it brings jobs and economic development.
The eight-year redevelopment plan, dubbed O’Hare 21, is the largest capital expansion of the airport’s 73-year history. The City of Chicago claims that it will create 60,000 construction jobs as well as tens of thousands of permanent jobs.
Bensenville Village Manager Evan K. Summers said the north side of the community, which is a largely industrial area, relies heavily on O’Hare airport. “Those industrial real estate pay increased taxes, which help subsidize the life of the residents,” said Summers. The Village of Bensenville borders the southwestern side of the airport.
“O’Hare Airport is a major economic engine for the entire region,” said Craig Johnson, mayor of Elk Grove Village, which borders the west side of O’Hare Airport. The village currently has the lowest industrial vacancy rate in its history, and the Business Park continues to boom, he said.
The flip side, however, can hardly be overlooked.
“Elk Grove residents have been experiencing noise impacts from the airport since the Village was incorporated in 1956,” said Johnson.
The situation got worse in recent years as the number of noise complaints grew constantly by year. The noise hotline and online service run by Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) received 5.5 million complaints in 2017, with the daily average of 15,129 exceeds the annual total of 14,346 complaints in 2010.
The makeover, according to city data, will increase O’Hare’s overall terminal footage by more than 60 percent, from 5.5 to 8.9 million square feet, and increase gate capacity by 25 percent. The upgraded airport is expected to host nearly 100 million passengers, compared with the nearly 80 million passengers now.
Apart from the potential increase in noise brought by improved capacity, the further shift from diagonal to east-west runways left the surrounding residents with “zero relief from jet noise impact,” particularly overnight, stated in the March newsletter of Fair Allocation in Runways, a non-profit organization working to mitigate noise and air pollution generated by air operations.
As jet noise concerns rose, CDA Commissioner Ginger Evans responded in a March meeting with Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board that the increase in capacity may not necessarily mean more planes, but may suggest bigger and more fully booked planes, Chicago Sun-Times reported.
This is, in essence, the continuation of the O’Hare Modernization Program, said Bensenville’s Summers, despite that the construction of new runways on the north side may balance the jet noise geographically.
The O’Hare Modernization Program, which was unveiled in 2005, has reportedly relocated more than 500 homes and a cemetery in Bensenville. Despite the dissent from the village for years, the City of Chicago prevailed.
Following the guideline of the modernization program, three east-west runways were commissioned to be built and one was extended. Among them, three were on the south side, close to the southern residential area of Bensenville instead of the northern industrial sites.
“These southern runways are over residential neighborhoods and are incompatible land use in my opinion,” said Summers.
The upcoming O’Hare 21 calls for renovating gates and facilities at Terminal 5, transforming Terminal 2 into a global terminal for both international and domestic flights, and building two new concourses.
The completion of the northern Runway 9C-27C, which is under construction and scheduled to open in 2020, and the extension of Runway 9R-27L, could be a relief for Bensenville residents.
“If the northern runways get built, it will achieve a more equitable distribution of noise,” said Summers.
The Village of Bensenville currently has one noise monitor on Mason Street, and it is negotiating with the City of Chicago to install one on the Hillside Drive to monitor the noise of the severely impacted south field, said Summers.
The Suburban O’Hare Commission (SOC), which involves collaboration from multiple suburbs around the airport, worked out a Fly Quiet Runway Rotation Plan with the CDA, which encourages pilots to use designated nighttime preferential runways and routes to minimize noises. While plan is currently under review at Federal Aviation Administration, an interim plan has been put into place this spring, according to Elk Grove Village’s Johnson, who is also the chairman of the SOC.
Full implementation of the plan should reduce the number of flights above the most populated neighborhoods of Bensenville by 25 percent, said Summers.