By Jon Hilkevitch
As the number of complaints about jet noise from O’Hare International Airport have set new records nearly every month over the past year, Chicago officials have responded that only a relatively few households are the sources of those gripes.
On Tuesday, voters will have the opportunity to put to the test the city’s contention that the majority of residents are not all that upset about recent changes in flight patterns at O’Hare.
Advisory referendum proposals are on the ballot in seven suburbs and the city of Chicago asking the electorate to weigh in on possible remedies — including mandatory measures that would need action by elected officials — to ease jet noise from planes departing and approaching O’Hare.
In addition, in three precincts in Chicago’s 44th Ward, voters will be asked whether the Chicago Transit Authority has provided adequate justification for its plan to build a controversial rail flyover bridge for Brown Line trains to cross over Red Line and Purple Line/Evanston Express tracks near the Belmont station.
All referendums in Illinois, while representing the opinions of the voting public, are advisory.
The O’Hare-related ballot questions are being presented to voters a little more than a year after the opening of a new runway that changed air-traffic patterns. Most planes now take off and land to the east and to the west. There has been a corresponding shift in jet noise that’s heard on the ground.
The referendum questions include asking voters whether they support:
Requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to create and enforce mandatory “fly-quiet” hours around O’Hare. The restrictions would replace the existing voluntary guidelines that ask airlines and pilots to try to reduce noise impacts after 10 p.m. Questions are on the ballot in Bensenville, Bloomingdale, Harwood Heights, Itasca, Norridge and Wood Dale.
An additional question in Bensenville proposes state legislation to reduce airport noise starting at 7 p.m. daily.
Also, Bloomingdale and Wood Dale are asking voters whether they support asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce a noise control law that covers aircraft noise and has been on the books since 1972.
Calling on the FAA to expand the existing noise-contour map so more homeowners would be eligible for government-funded soundproofing. Variations on the question are on the ballot in Chicago, Harwood Heights and Itasca.
In addition, voters in Bloomingdale and Wood Dale will be asked whether the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission, which was created by the city of Chicago to represent noise-weary communities, should increase residential sound-proofing in the municipalities to remediate aircraft noise.
Advising Congress to direct Chicago to implement noise-mitigation measures to address the noise changes resulting from the new runway that opened in October 2013 as well as the next new runway set to open in late 2015. The question is on the ballot in Bensenville.
Requiring the FAA to review existing criteria setting noise- and air-pollution standards related to O’Hare flights; and requiring that the FAA consider “local community input” from areas affected by new air-traffic patterns. The question is on the ballot in Park Ridge.
Complaints about O’Hare jet noise reached an all-time high of 30,249 in August, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Chicago officials noted that 44 percent of the complaints came from 11 addresses, including in Bensenville, Itasca, Norridge and Wood Dale.
Voting on the O’Hare issues will come four days after Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino re-stated the Emanuel administration’s opposition to expanding fly-quiet hours, making the fly-quiet program mandatory or supporting use of more O’Hare runways during overnight hours as a way to spread out jet noise effects by reducing the number of flights over specific communities.
“People are experiencing noise, I understand that,” Andolino testified Friday at a city council budget hearing for 2015. “However, there are limited things we can do. I can’t just magically make something happen.”
Andolino, who is expected to leave her post this month after serving as aviation commissioner since 2009, has tried to walk a political tightrope, carrying out the $10 billion O’Hare expansion plan for two mayors while also trying to portray the airport as a good neighbor and a steward of the environment.
On Monday, Andolino will host for the last time the national Airports Going Green conference, which the aviation department began during her tenure.
As Andolino prepares to leave City Hall to take a higher-paying job in the private sector, critics say Mayor Rahm Emanuel risks a fierce public backlash by appearing to care more about the economic benefits of more flights at O’Hare than he does about the quality of life of residents. The criticism is even coming from his allies.
At Friday’s budget hearing, Ald. Margaret Laurino, whose 39th Ward on the Northwest Side is below a heavily used O’Hare flight corridor, said her constituents are frustrated and angry “and I don’t blame them because I feel the same way.”
The city’s hard line is “a mistake,” added U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, a Chicago Democrat running for re-election Tuesday who also said he has had numerous fiery conversations with Emanuel — to no avail — about helping to provide noise relief.
“There are things the administration can do right now to alleviate the problem, if they wanted to,” Quigley, whose congressional district includes the O’Hare area, said in an interview Friday. “The mayor is not without the ability and the access to the administration in Washington to reach an accord.”
Quigley said he hopes Emanuel will soon “understand that he doesn’t have to hurt the economic engine we call O’Hare in order to address the legitimate concerns from the neighbors.”
“Frankly, I don’t think she (Andolino) has made any effort,” he said.
Meanwhile, the question to voters Tuesday in three precincts of Chicago’s 44th Ward is whether the CTA has “sufficiently justified” the $320 million proposed Brown Line flyover bridge in light of the project’s potential negative impact on nearby residents and businesses.
Activists in Lakeview are urging a “no” vote. They say the flyover, which would extend as high as 40 to 45 feet, would be an eyesore and add to noise in the neighborhood, jeopardizing a business district that is home to thriving shops and restaurants.
The CTA plans to acquire about 16 properties occupied by homes and businesses for the project, which the transit agency said is needed to de-clog the busy Clark Junction rail intersection and build capacity for future ridership demand.
Lakeview resident Ellen Hughes, who is leading a campaign to kill the project, said the proposed elevated bridge to allow Brown Line trains to bypass other rail traffic is expensive, unnecessary and would have a “permanent, devastating impact on a large chunk of central Lakeview.”
Emanuel said during the unveiling of the plan last spring that it would end “3- to- 4-minute waits” at Clark Junction, which is north of the Belmont stop. But opponents and many riders say typical delays last no more than a half-minute.
The CTA continues work to design the bypass bridge. The next step in the public process will come next year when the CTA releases a draft environmental assessment, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said. The agency will solicit further public comments and hold a public hearing, he said.