By Rosalind Rossi
None of three hearings to gather public input on proposed O’Hare International Airport runway changes were held in areas predicted to be hit with an onslaught of heavy air traffic under the plan, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis indicates.
The Federal Aviation Administration says it followed the rules on legally-required public hearings before it approved the $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program, which has since triggered skyrocketing O’Hare noise complaints.
But critics — and one U.S. congressman – are crying foul.
The FAA’s failure to hold any required hearings in areas due for onerous air traffic “calls into question the process, and it’s aggravating,’’ said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.
If the rules allow the FAA to sidestep adversely-impacted communities as hearing sites, the rules should be changed, said Quigley, who has been trying to persuade city and federal officials to address new O’Hare noise beefs.
“I am planning to analyze this and put forward meaningful changes that will require sufficient hearings focused in areas most impacted” by airport changes, Quigley told the Sun-Times.
The hearings were held 9 years ago but the result of those hearings — a dramatic shift in flight paths — didn’t launch until last October.
The FAA went “above and beyond” the guidelines by holding three public hearings on the environmental impact of the airport work — two more than were required, said Chicago-based FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.
The agency was looking for a certain kind of venue and an FAA order on public hearings doesn’t cite where they must be held, Molinaro said.
The three hearings covered more than jet noise and were “spread out geographically around the airport” so residents from 14 communities around O’Hare could easily attend, he said.
Jac Charlier, a leader of the Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition, said hearings should have been located in areas affected by the top issue.
“We have a bigger problem if the FAA does not realize noise is the number one issue,” said Charlier. “You have a federal agency holding what are essentially sham hearings.”
The FAA held the hearings in February 2005, when what one federal inspector general called “one of the largest and most costly reconfigurations of an airport in the United States” was a mere proposal stretched across literally millions of web pages. Eight years later it started bearing air-traffic fruit.
Last Oct. 17, O’Hare finally switched from using mostly diagonal runways to mostly parallel ones as part of project. The Chicago Department of Aviation contended the move was critical to expanding flight capacity at the nation’s second-busiest airport and to reducing O’Hare delays that were bottling up the U.S. air traffic system.
After the big switch, O’Hare noise complaints soared to record levels, particularly in Chicago, where some residents said they were blindsided by a blitz of planes over their homes — especially at night, when the single runway usually used for night arrivals brings planes in over the city.
Jet noise topped a list of O’Hare project concerns gathered in 2002 by the FAA to prepare for its environmental impact hearings, FAA documents show. FAA “noise contour” maps posted a month before the hearings indicated the runway overhaul would produce jet noise loud enough to qualify homes for sound insulation in areas directly east and west of O’Hare.
But all the hearings were north and south of O’Hare, where heavy noise was expected to diminish.
Two hearing sites stood to benefit from project’s runway shift, FAA maps indicate. The third was essentially unaffected by it.
Elmhurst, host to one hearing, has experienced the biggest drop in O’Hare noise complaints since the flight path conversion, a Sun-Times analysis indicates.
Another hearing was held in a part of Elk Grove Village that has a diagonal runway pointed right at it that will eventually be decommissioned under the O’Hare plan.
No serious jet noise was occurring in or predicted for the third location, in Niles, public hearing “noise contour” maps show.
More than 24,000 Chicago area residents will be subjected to serious jet noise by the time the O’Hare Modernization Program is completed in 2020 – or 6,267 more than before it began, FAA documents predict.
But only about 1,500 residents showed up at the three hearings — a turnout even the FAA conceded was “very light given the dense population” around O’Hare.
And by the end, reaction ranged from 3 to 1 to 4 to 1 in favor of the city’s proposal, FAA documents about the hearing note.
“You don’t need to be a brain surgeon. If you want positive feedback, go to the people that will be in your favor,” said Norridge Village President James Chmura.
Norridge has experienced the biggest jump in noise complaints since O’Hare launched its dramatic shift in flight paths, a Sun-Times analysis showed.
It was followed by Itasca, the city’s 41st Ward, Wood Dale and the 39th Ward as experiencing the biggest increases in noise complaints in the five months since the runway switch compared to the same five months a year earlier. None of the top five noise complaint areas were public hearing sites.
“Nobody wanted any yelling or screaming. That’s probably why they had