With momentum finally growing to extend the Elgin O'Hare Expressway east, build a western bypass and complete airport expansion, the region is ripe for "the biggest economic development project of this generation," DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom believes.
"The opportunities airport expansion and western access bring will fuel development in that part of DuPage and southern Cook for the next 25 years," Schillerstrom said.
His remarks follow a ground-shaking month when longtime airport expansion foe Bensenville Village President John Geils lost the April 7 election and his ally, Elk Grove Village President Craig Johnson, did a 180 on the issue April 23.
"It's a gigantic breakthrough," Schillerstrom said.
Johnson's announcement to halt all lawsuits against O'Hare International Airport expansion came the same day the Illinois Department of Transportation selected four options for a western bypass around the airport connecting I-90 and I-294. The agency dropped a proposal to widen Route 83 through Elk Grove Village's business park, which in turn led to Johnson's decision.
With new Village President Frank Soto in Bensenville willing to negotiate with Chicago and IDOT closing in on designs for the bypass and expressway, DuPage County officials are dusting off plans for a massive makeover of the Elgin O'Hare corridor.
"If you open up the west side, you have to have hotels," Schillerstrom said. "If you have hotels, you have to have restaurants and retail."
The expressway now runs from Hanover Park to I-290 in Itasca. The plan is to bring it east into O'Hare so that it connects with the bypass, which would head south to I-294 and north to I-90. This creates opportunities for new interchanges into towns along the way like Wood Dale, Bensenville, Elk Grove Village and Itasca, along with economic development.
If legal roadblocks to O'Hare modernization, which involves building six parallel runways and a western terminal, are removed and the project accelerates, Schillerstrom predicted the airport could regain its world's busiest status.
Building the expressway to O'Hare in tandem with the runways and new terminal will "open up opportunities to the west side of the airport," Schillerstrom said, adding he anticipates international companies choosing to locate their American headquarters in the area.
For years, DuPage towns presented a united front opposing O'Hare expansion. So back in 2003 when Schillerstrom convinced the county board to reverse course, it came as a thunderbolt.
The county tied its support for O'Hare modernization to the completion of the expressway east and the construction of the bypass, estimating the two projects could generate 40,000 jobs and bring $5 billion to the local economy.
Schillerstrom took heat for the move from numerous sources including Geils and Johnson, who called the switch politically and financially motivated.
Now, "I think the world changes and John Geils didn't," Schillerstrom said.
In the future, "there needs to be a unifying force," Schillerstrom said, adding he hopes to convene a meeting on the project with Soto, Johnson, and officials from Chicago, IDOT and the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. Officials are considering paying for the estimated $2.5 billion to $3.6 billion road construction cost by making the new highways toll roads.
The bad blood between Bensenville leaders and Schillerstrom has meant no dialogue for years on the airport, he said.
Asked what the village can get out of negotiations, "I guess we have to find out what Bensenville wants," Schillerstrom said. "The opportunities to transform Bensenville are just going to be amazing. We need to open up lines of communication and begin to talk about things we agree on and talk about things we can't agree on and ways to solve problems."
A 2006 West O'Hare Corridor Economic Development Study by the county identifies 11 "opportunity zones" near the airport, including areas on Route 53, Devon Avenue, Thorndale Avenue, York Road, Irving Park Road, Lake Street, Route 83 and Mount Prospect Road.
There's also a public transit component to the IDOT plan that calls for a 40-foot space along the expressway from O'Hare to the Schaumburg Metra stop to allow for commuter rail or bus rapid transit.
"Bus rapid transit is generally a good first step to build up ridership," Schillerstrom said. "The cost is substantially cheaper than rail. With growth, I believe what will take place ultimately will be some rail component."
State transportation department engineers presented four designs for the bypass. On the north leg connecting with I-90, options are widening York Road to six lanes or putting the highway on airport property.
On the south leg linking to the Tri-State, the alternates are an elevated highway west of County Line Road in Bensenville or a highway east of the Union Pacific tracks in Franklin Park.
"It seems to me to make sense to put it as much of it on the border of the airport so as there's as little negative on businesses and homes as possible," Schillerstrom said.