Panel approves bill to save diagonal runways


A bill that would increase the total of allowed runways from eight to 10 at O’Hare International Airport without the need for state approval and possibly lead to increased soundproofing was approved by the Illinois House Transportation Vehicles and Safety Committee in the House of Representatives last week, according to State Senator John Mulroe (D-10).

Mulroe said that passage of Senate Bill 636 would be the first step toward increasing the number of allowed runways at O’Hare.

Under the current law the Chicago Department of Aviation must be granted approval by the Illinois Department of Aeronautics in order to operate more than eight runways at the airport.

Mulroe said that he is working on the legislation in order to prevent the decommissioning of two diagonal runways at O’Hare. City Department of Aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride said in an e-mail that the department still plans to decommission Runway 14 Left/32 Right on Aug. 20.

"Everyone has been pushing to get the bill called, and I think it’s a move in the right direction so that we can have more time to discuss possible solutions without closing the diagonals," Mulroe said.

The committee did not hear a second bill sponsored by Mulroe, Senate Bill 637, which would prohibit the city from closing the diagonal runways altogether. Both bills were approved by the Illinois Senate by 52-0 votes recently.

State Representative John D’Amico (D-15), who is the chairman of the transportation committee, said that getting Senate Bill 636 passed by the committee was a step in the right direction.

"Everyone has been keeping pressure on this so that we can provide some relief to the communities on the Northwest Side and in the suburbs," D’Amico said.

Mulroe said that by not using the diagonal runways, 97 percent of air traffic was directed to areas east and west of the airport, which resulted in significant increases in the numbers of complaints about jet noise.

"In order to operate more runways, they would need permission from the state, that’s why one of the bills increases the number of allowed runways to 10," Mulroe said.

State Representative Marty Moylan (D-55) sponsored an amendment to Mulroe’s bill that replaces the current aircraft noise monitoring metric, the Day Night Average Sound Level, with a new metric called the Community Noise Equivalent Level.

The current day night standard adds a 10-decibel penalty on each aircraft that operates from 10 p.m. to 7 p.m., but no penalty is added on flights before 10 p.m. The proposed community noise standard would place a 5-decibel penalty on flights between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. in addition to the 10-decible penalty on overnight flights.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently accepts the CNEL standard when determining noise impact on families, businesses and other institutions such as schools, according to Moylan.

The greater the emphasis on evening noise may result in more soundproofing funds for the areas affected by expanding the noise contour, according to Moylan’s office. The FAA controls qualifications for residential soundproofing, and the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission and Chicago Department of Aviation administer the program.

"This legislation can provide relief from the burden of airplane noise through an increase in soundproofing eligibility, as well as potentially allowing the diagonal runways to stay open," Moylan said. "A combination of increased eligibility for soundproofing and a more equitable distribution of flights across all available runways is one way to provide meaningful relief to families impacted by the unbearable level of noise."

The Fair Allocation in Runways coalition of community groups supports keeping the diagonal runways open because it said that would not expose any new residents to increased noise and that it would allow for more options to allocate air traffic in a fairer manner.

Coalition co-founder Jac Charlier said that the legislation is a step toward saving the diagonal runways, but he was skeptical about the intentions of the city Department of Aviation.

"I have never encountered a public agency that behaves so secretly as if they were the National Security Agency," Charlier said. "They don’t call back and they don’t release any information."

Charlier criticized Mayor Rahm Emanuel for failing to meet with the group and other lawmakers who support the issue. "This is Emanuel’s Meigs Field, and the entire O’Hare operation continues to move forward in secret without any citizen input," he said.

Charlier said that the city aviation department recently moved equipment from the runway that is scheduled for decommissioning in August and that the move undermines Mulroe’s efforts. "It just makes it seem that the diagonals will close either way and that it’s all going to happen regardless of what he is trying to accomplish," he said.

"There is no down side to the mayor coming to the table and listening to people’s concerns," Charlier said.

The FAA recently announced that it would hold four public meetings this summer to present results from a re-evaluation of an environmental impact study conducted several years ago before the opening of a new runway in October on the south side of O’Hare.

Aviation administration spokesman Tony Molinaro said recently that the re-evaluation was made necessary because of a change in the schedule of runway construction. Molinaro said that runway 10 Right/28 Left originally was scheduled to be the last one to open.

Molinaro said that the city agreed with United Airlines and American Airlines on a schedule to open new runways as part of the O’Hare Modernization Plan but that the schedule has changed and a re-evaluation is required. Runway 9 Center/27 Center originally was the next one to be commissioned, but now it is scheduled to be completed by 2020.

The runway will be located north of Irving Park Road, which was redirected in recent years to make way for it. "The FAA doesn’t close or open runways, the city does," Molinaro said. "The only thing that’s really changing for us is that a new runway will be opening a lot sooner than originally expected, and we want to re-evaluate the impact of that."

In other O’Hare news, U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (D-5) announced that he had secured language in the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development funding bill for fiscal year 2016, which was approved the House Appropriations Committee, mandating the FAA develop short- and long-term measures to mitigate jet noise experienced by communities around the airport.

"As an appropriator with direct oversight of the FAA, I am doing everything in my power to ensure that the FAA is not only responsive to my constituents but is also committed to finding solutions to the unprecedented level of noise pollution they’re experiencing every day," Quigley said in a press release. "By mandating the FAA to investigate the increased noise that has resulted from the O’Hare Modernization Program and report to Congress on potential measures to alleviate local concerns, I’m holding the FAA accountable to Chicagoans who live beneath the flight paths of the world’s busiest airport.

The bill would require the FAA to report to the Appropriations Committee 90 days after the House approves the bill.

Quigley announced in April that the Office of Management and Budget approved conducting a study the FAA will use to determine if the current 65 decibel Day-Night Average Sound Level metric used to measure acceptable airplane noise should be changed to address increased noise pollution.

The 65 DNL standard has been in place since the 1970s when air traffic volume was far lower than it is today, according to Quigley.

Emanuel announced on May 8 that the FAA would expedite the study to review the national metric for measuring noise near 20 airports in the country. The study could help more residents qualify for the O’Hare Residential Sound Insulation Program.