Thursday, June 19, 2014

Three Illinois U.S. reps ask Federal Aviation Administration for new hearings on O’Hare noise

Three Illinois members of Congress on Thursday asked the head of the Federal Aviation Administration to hold new public hearings on a switch in O’Hare International Airport flight paths that have “flooded” their constituents with “unexpected noise.’’

 In a letter to FAA administrator Michael Huerta, the elected officials cited the “inaccuracy and incompleteness” of information at legally-required 2005 public hearings — something the Chicago Sun-Times chronicled exclusively in Thursday’s edition.

The FAA’s hearings on an $8 billion O’Hare overhaul “ran contrary to their required purpose,’’ according to the letter, signed by three Democratic U.S. representatives: Mike Quigley, Tammy Duckworth and Janice Schakowsky.

“Constituents were never informed in any meaningful way how many additional flights, and how much more noise, they would be asked to endure,’’ the officials contend.

A Sun-Times investigation found that the FAA released inaccurate data about the now-contentious issue of the percent of traffic each runway would carry, then quietly corrected 72 percent of its figures online months after public hearings ended.  The corrections were contained in what, by then, was more than 7.5 million web pages of online FAA information about the plan.

The FAA did not display to hearing visitors the number of flights it expected each runway to bear by the completion of the O’Hare overhaul, even though it had the data to do so at the time, the Sun-Times found. The map the FAA did display about noise impacts at hearings was described by critics as “misleading.’’

And, the Sun-Times reported last week, the only legally-required FAA public hearings on the environmental impact of the overhaul were not held in areas due to see the worst noise. Turnout was “very light” at the hearings, with those attending being in favor of the plan by as much as a 4-to-1 ratio, the FAA reported.

Although the hearings were held in 2005 and ultimately led to FAA approval of the city’s proposed overhaul, the effects of that overhaul didn’t hit until last Oct. 17.

That’s when the Chicago Department of Aviation completed its first phase of the O’Hare Modernization Program, and switched from using mostly diagonal runways to mostly parallel ones.

The big switch brought far more flights over areas of the city and suburbs directly east and west of O’Hare. It has triggered skyrocketing, record O’Hare noise complaints, many from residents who have said they were blindsided by the blitz of planes over their homes.

Two more parallel runways and a runway extension are due by 2020, although funding for some of that work is up in the air.

“Since October 2013, our offices have received countless complaints on the impact the new runway and attending flight pattern changes at O’Hare have had on every day life,’’ the letter states.

“The O’Hare Modernization Program has disturbed many of our constituents’ daily lives, negatively impacting their schedules, leisure activities and even home values in areas overwhelmed with noise pollution.’’

Quigley, Duckworth and Shakowsky are calling on the FAA to conduct a new environmental assessment of the project, to hold new public hearings and to provide a “full explanation” of the FAA’s previous efforts to contact affected areas before it approved the project.

In addition, they urged the FAA to expedite its analysis of what level of noise should trigger free sound insulation – something it said the FAA has been conducting for five years but remains “not near completion.”

In the meantime, the U.S. representatives called on the FAA, the city and the airlines to “devise a course of action that will brief relief to our residents,” whether it involves airspace changes, keeping both diagonal and parallel runways open indefinitely, or asking airlines to make some accommodations.

“We need to start work now,’’ the letter urged. “Our constituents should not have to wait until the airport expansion is completed in 2020 to decide if they can endure the increase in noise pollution.  We want your guarantee to explore whatever practicable changes are necessary to protect our neighborhoods, while keeping O’Hare safe and efficient.’’


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