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Stalled on the runway

Last week, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation provided Chicago $3.4 million to help build an air traffic control tower as part O’Hare international airport expansion. The project, though, is plagued with insufficient funds and no realistic completion date, reports the Chicago Tribune’s Robert McCoppin. McCoppin focuses on the stalled construction of a western terminal. “The fate of the terminal is unclear,” he writes. “Its uncertain status has some critics questioning whether the project’s promised economic boost justified destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses, as well as increased noise and pollution in the area.”

I think that one problem with the O’Hare expansion project has been the role of federal and state government as enabler to local government. The U.S. DOT has provided more to O’Hare expansion than it has to any other airport project in the agency’s history. Yet this sum is $600 million, which is a fraction of the $15 billion the expansion is projected to cost. Moreover, the money comes in fragmented grants. For example, the $3.4 million for the air traffic control tower sounds like a serious federal investment, except that the tower will cost $42 million and it’s not clear where all this $42 million will come from.

The state government, meanwhile, has vacillated for eight years. This is symbolized lately by Gov. Pat Quinn naming an O’Hare expansion “advisory council” to help determine the project’s future. It would be preferable if both Illinois and DOT took a hard line stance:  Either give the project enough money so it can be completed or declare O’Hare expansion a lost cause and shift transportation funds elsewhere.

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