O'Hare Airport: Test Case for Expansion Plans ; While Other Cities Weigh Proposals, Congress Considers Legislation on O'Hare

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Deputy village manager James Johnson doesn't mind replaying his worst nightmare.

"From the railroad tracks on, everything disappears," he says, pointing two fingers down a commercial stretch of highway here in Bensenville. A few blocks later, he drives to the back of a parking lot. "That runway ends right about where that white truck is."

Mr. Johnson isn't the only one on edge about expansion plans for Chicago's O'Hare airport. The push to nearly double the airport's capacity has pitted congressman against congressman and forged unusual alliances.

At issue: whether the nation's need for more airport space trumps local concerns about disrupted neighborhoods and the effects of noise and pollution.

From a national perspective, the plan sounds tempting. O'Hare- expansion supporters are even pushing federal legislation that would prohibit the state from blocking the airport's expansion. Many cities - from Los Angeles to Miami - in similar straits may be encouraged to follow suit.

'Political struggle for control'

But the battle over O'Hare - the nation's busiest airport - is more complicated than it may first appear. Power politics, city revenues and jobs, and airline interests all play a role. "The struggle has been a political struggle for control, not for solving the aviation crisis," says Frank Watkins, press secretary for US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois.

No one denies that delays are one of the key factors hurting the nation's air-travel network. In 2000, eight of the nation's 31 major airports experienced significant delays, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). And delays at just one airport ripple through the system.

True, the Sept. 11 attacks and recession reduced air travel last year, but the long-term problem remains. By 2010, the severe-delay list is projected to consist of O'Hare, Los Angeles International, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and all three New York-area airports. "There's a continuous challenge ... to add capacity where it's needed," says William Shumann, an FAA spokesman.

That's why Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced last year a plan to add a new runway to O'Hare and the reconfiguration of others. The idea got a boost in December, when Illinois Gov. George Ryan agreed to the plan in exchange for Mr. Daley's support for building a third area airport in Peotone, south of the city.

The legislation to further the expansion plan has bipartisan support: Governor Ryan is a Republican; Daley and US Rep. …