Time doesn’t stand still at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, which is understandable given its standing as one of the world’s busiest aviation centers.

But even mainstay hubs must keep their facilities and infrastructure in step with the ever-changing, highly competitive dynamics of air travel in order to safely accommodate more flights on larger aircraft and meet passengers’ rising expectations for service and reliability.

It’s a daunting challenge, to be sure, but one that seems to have become routine for the Chicago Dept. of Aviation, ENR Midwest’s Owner of the Year. While some aviation authorities might want to take a breath after completing a program such as O’Hare’s $6.6-billion airfield modernization program, currently in its final stages, the CDA has a full slate of other multimillion-dollar projects underway, with others being readied for takeoff.

“Our two rules are: Don’t disrupt operations and never go backward in terms of runways being in service,” says Jonathon Leach, CDA managing deputy commissioner and chief operating officer.

The projects exemplify both efficiency and strategic planning. For example, the completion of a new east-west runway in 2020 will accommodate Group VI aircraft and balance flyover noise for surrounding communities while also allowing the decommissioning of an existing, inefficient runway, thereby creating space for even more expansion.

Efficiency is also behind O’Hare’s new $782-million ground transportation hub, set to open in 2018. The project co-locates all rental car operations with a public parking garage and bus shuttle center and modernizes and extends the airport’s people mover system. At Terminal 3, American Airlines is funding its own five-gate expansion, due to be ready next year.

And there’s more construction to come. In July, CDA announced plans for multiphase, multibillion-dollar investment in O’Hare’s terminals, beginning with a $300-million, nine-gate expansion of O’Hare’s Terminal 5 for wide-body planes and to provide additional security screening and federal inspection facilities. Plans also call for redeveloping Terminal 2 into a new central terminal, housing a departure hall with additional space for TSA passenger screening, concessions and passenger amenities, plus provisions for additional concourses in the future. RFPs are also being evaluated for developing a new hotel adjacent to Terminal 5 and for renovating the existing O’Hare Hilton.

CDA’s Midway Airport is hardly idle from a construction standpoint, with a $248-million modernization program that includes a new 80,000-sq-ft security pavilion. CDA also recently finalized a concession management agreement with a private firm that includes a $75-million, 26,000-sq-ft expansion to the airport’s concession area.

Mapping its own course

While the advantage of being financially self-supporting gives CDA greater control over the scope and pace of its construction programs, the agency has also sought to exploit efficiencies in its project planning and implementation process wherever possible. In recent years, CDA has made greater use of alternative project delivery methods such as construction manager at-risk and design-build, “both of which have been very effective,” Leach says.

CMAR was put to the test for the consolidated rental car facility when initial cost estimates were well over CDA’s budget. But the owner-contractor conflict that often arises in such situations didn’t materialize, according to Peter Bartels, project executive for Austin Power Partners, a joint venture of Austin Commercial, Dallas, and Chicago’s Power Construction and Ujamaa Construction.

“From the outset, the CDA was interested in working with us to find a solution, not simply ‘give us what’s on the drawings,’” Bartels says, adding that the ensuing collaboration was enhanced by CDA representatives’ decision-making authority. “By the time we got done, our estimate and the architect’s estimate were within one percent of each other.”

Pleased with how CMAR affords CDA a greater degree of agility in meeting project budget and schedule targets, Leach says, “We’ll be using it again for the Terminal 5 expansion.”

That CDA is adept at collaboration comes as no surprise to Frank Mullaghy, project executive for Chicago contractor FH Paschen, who has worked with the agency on numerous airside and landside projects for more than 15 years.

“They’re very proactive and willing to get their hands dirty and help contractors,” he says. “They know the importance of making decisions quickly.”

The current round of construction activity at O’Hare and Midway also reflects the CDA’s continued leadership in sustainability, including agency-pioneered practices that form the core of its now widely used Sustainable Airport Manual. The evolution of these methods is evidenced by O’Hare’s South Area traffic control tower, commissioned in 2015 with a LEED Gold rating, just seven years after the nation’s first LEED-certified tower was completed on the airport’s north side.

Leach also reports that 26 million cu yd of dirt excavated during the course of O’Hare’s runway work has been reused on site, saving 850,000 dump truck trips and several million gallons of fuel. Runway 10R/28L, completed in 2015, incorporated 8 million recycled asphalt shingles in its pavement mix, the first U.S. application of the technology for a runway.

Close to the community

An equally critical aspect of the CDA’s building programs at O’Hare and Midway is ensuring that Chicago’s diverse workforce has as many opportunities to participate as possible. According to Robye Scott, CDA’s deputy commissioner for human resources and workforce development, lead contractors are required to conduct quarterly outreach events in different parts of greater Chicago, working with unions and other city agencies on job and training opportunities that might not otherwise be available to those in economically disadvantaged areas.

Scott adds that with the upcoming O’Hare terminal redevelopment program on the way, those efforts will only increase.

“Any opportunity to expose people to opportunities in construction and aviation—whether it’s a job fair, a networking session or student internship and shadowing days—we’re doing it,” she says.

CDA is hopeful that within three years that workforce will be involved in yet another ambitious infrastructure project—a high-speed direct rail line connecting O’Hare with downtown Chicago. Backed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the rail line would complement existing transit service and provide an alternative to the frequently congested Kennedy Expressway.

WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff has been at work for the past year examining potential routes for the new service, which the CDA has stated would likely be developed as a turnkey venture with a private partner.

Leach says the time is right for the project, which has long been talked about yet frequently shelved due to cost concerns.

“As part of our terminal development plan, we have the opportunity to determine the optimal location for an airport station and coordinate construction with other work,” he says. “We also have more flexibility in determining where to place ancillary facilities for rail car storage and maintenance.”

Amid this ambitious construction and redevelopment agenda, Leach recognizes that the nature of aviation means being ever alert to disruptive changes that can force an immediate course change, something not easily managed with concrete, steel and pavement. The most important trend on the CDA’s radar currently is technology, particularly as it relates to security.

“We want to plan for existing and emerging technologies so we can accommodate them as much as possible in our design documents and make our facilities viable for the long term,” he says. “We’re also watching technology for things like passenger comfort and amenities.”

FH Paschen’s Mullaghy has few concerns about executing whatever designs do emerge from CDA’s design and construction group.

“When it comes to upfront planning, other owners could take a page from their book,” he says.