Photo:Tudor Hampton/ENR
Heavy equipment reshapes tangled airport.

Watching construction at O’Hare International Airport is like being on the playing field during a pro football game, except the participants are bigger and mechanized. Powerful pull scrapers sprint across the airport’s face, engine rumble rises like the roar of 100,000 Bears fans and on the sidelines stand the existing terminals and air traffic control tower.

The Super Bowl of airport construction projects has started about 20 miles northwest of the Loop—and the stakes are higher than a mere football game.

O’Hare is undergoing a $6.6-billion modernization, and the project is likely the biggest nationwide in terms of cost and scope, exceeding New York City’s decades-long $6-billion Water Tunnel No. 3 but possibly falling short of Las Vegas’ mixed-use project, CityCenter. At an estimated cost of $7 billion, that project has yet to break ground.

“The industry seems to believe that this is one of the largest construction projects underway in the country,” says Rosemarie Andolino, executive director of the project formally known as the O’Hare Modernization Program.

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  • The project involves reconfiguring the runways, developing new terminals on the airport’s western perimeter, adding the North Airport Traffic Control Tower and other improvements. It is one element of the nearly $15-billion master plan expected to last 20 years. The other components comprise the $2.6 billion World Gateway Program, an on-hold plan announced in 1999 to build gates on the airport’s east side. Also set is a $4.1-billion capital improvement program for runway repairs, terminal upgrades and security enhancements.

    While those components are still crystallizing, the modernization program is the focus of attention. Its goal: eliminate long-term flight delays and increase capacity.

    Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Federal Aviation Administration chief Marion Blakey have imposed multiple rounds of flight reductions on O’Hare during peak travel times because of delays. These will remain in place through 2008. “If we continue to stay where we’re at, we don’t have the room to add capacity with what is forecast [for air travel],” Andolino says. O’Hare has 2,700 daily flight operations and ranks either No. 1 or 2 in the country in terms of use.

    No state or local tax dollars will be used to fund the modernization. The money is coming from sources that include airline-backed general airport revenue bonds, passenger facility charges and federal Airport Improvement Program funds. So far, the project is about 40% funded at $2.88 billion, which will finance the first phase.

    In mid-September, about $541 million in contracts had been let, Andolino says.

    Discussions continue with the airlines on the funding for the project’s second phase, says Roderick Drew, assistant commissioner and director of public affairs for the modernization. The funding sources are expected be the same as the first phase, except an estimated 10% of funding for the new Western Terminal will come from third-party sources.

    The project has endured over jet noise and property acquisition by the city. Land is needed to provide runway operations and serve as object-free zones for airplane safety and plans call for 433 acres to be acquired in Bensenville, Chicago, Des Plaines and Elk Grove Village. Among the opponents are Bensenville, Elk Grove Village and St. John’s United Church of Christ, the Bensenville owner of St. Johannes Cemetery on the airport's border.

    The FAA approved the project on Sept. 30, 2005, and work commenced that day. Hours later a judge halted the work so that arguments against the expansion could be heard in court. Almost a month later, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia lifted the stay and work resumed.

    Litigation is still pending, including a suit seeking to prevent the city from uprooting the cemetery for the land. In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the city’s favor, but a remaining appeal on the cemetery is pending. Earlier this year, the city offered $630,000 for the land holding St. Johannes. Despite the offer, the church opposes the project in part because 1,600 graves would have to be relocated.

    Meantime, the city has acquired 125 acres formerly in Des Plaines and by mid-September had acquired 101 acres formerly in Bensenville, Drew said. Remaining Bensenville parcels and 14.8 acres in Elk Grove have yet to be acquired.

    Because of the ongoing litigation, the date of project completion has not been announced, Andolino says

    The philosophy behind the layout of the runways is the key to eliminating the delays plaguing O’Hare. Two existing runways will be extended, three existing runways will be relocated, three others will be decommissioned and one new strip will be constructed. The net gain will be one runway. The existing runway layout, with its pickup sticks layout, has six intersections. Michael Boland, director of the modernization program, says an intersecting runway is closed during poor weather, such as rain or cloudiness with low ceiling, to ensure safety. “In good weather, they do run the three (approach runways),” he said. “In bad weather you take one away, so the airport has a 33% reduction in capacity.”

    Because O’Hare is a linchpin for air traffic nationwide, delays have ripple effects throughout the country and affect airports elsewhere.

    The new configuration eliminates most intersections and will have two sets of three parallel runways—one on the north, the other on the south—for a total of six. Each will be in an east-west configuration to take advantage of the predominating winds in the Midwest because jets land and take off into the wind.

    More important, the three-plane approach can be done safely in poor weather, eliminating delays. The two other runways will be diagonal to the six parallel runways and be maintained in part to accommodate operations during crosswinds.

    Most of the construction underway is a run-up for the runway work.

    For instance, a mammoth amount of grading is being done with equipment like pull scrapers and motor scrapers to balance the field in preparation for building the runways, taxiways and infrastructure. Numerous berms, which were created during previous eras of construction and maintained in sections in part for noise reduction, are being cut. By mid-September, about 2 million cu. yds. of dirt had been moved on both the North and South airfields, Andolino says.

    There is a lot of relocation work to be done. A 90-in., high-pressure water main owned by the Northwestern Suburban Municipal Joint Action Water Agency and serving seven suburbs has to be moved make way for a runway. Contractors must lay about 5,130 linear ft. of 48-in. temporary bypass piping for uninterrupted service and 4,776 linear ft. of 90-in. prestressed concrete cylinder

    An interesting element this fall will be when contractors cut off the pressurized water in the existing main and shift to the temporary bypass, which will involve the introduction of a plugging tool. “So if you make a mistake, you'll have a gusher out there,” Boland says. “There is no way to turn it off.”

    Only a handful of “hot taps” have been done before, but few of those involving a 90-in. water main.

    Getting that part of the job right may solidify the successful image of this Super Bowl-sized construction project.