Marathon O'Hare Project Millions Over Estimates

Project that started in 2003 to be completed in 2007 still isn't done

If O'Hare International Airport is Chicago's front porch, the site which has greeted visitors for the last eight years has hardly been welcoming: unsightly wooden boxes, topping graffiti-marred pillars in front of the main terminals; a gray canopy scarred by rusting seams; ugly steel braces, shoring up what was to be a sparkling roof.

Welcome to Chicago.

The shockingly uninviting sight, marks what is known as the O’Hare Façade and Circulation Enhancement (FACE) Project, a multi-million dollar effort to spruce up the exteriors of the aging terminals, with the addition of a soaring canopy designed to extend over the innermost lane of traffic.

The project, started in 2003, was supposed to provide travellers unloading their bags on the airport’s upper roadway with shelter from the city’s often unpredictable weather.

Eight years after it began, the project still isn’t finished, and has run tens of millions of dollars over budget.

The FACE Project was plagued with problems from the beginning. First, the pillars supporting the new porticos were drilled down dangerously close to the existing pedestrian tunnels running from the parking garage into the terminals. As a result, caissons at several locations had to be moved by as much as a foot and a half.

Ironically, those tunnels were designed in 1972 by C.F. Murphy & Associates, a predecessor company to Murphy/Jahn, which did the design work for the FACE Project. A city lawsuit filed last May suggests that someone from Murphy/Jahn should have known the tunnels were there.

Indeed, that lawsuit by the City of Chicago, filed against the architects and builders, alleges a horror show of design and building mistakes.

For one thing, the FACE canopy roof required welds of various types. The suit alleges the wrong kinds of welds were used, based on incorrect design calculations. Some of the welds cracked, forcing millions of dollars in repairs. The city charged that numerous welds contained "unacceptable amounts of slag, cracks, and other unacceptable flaws," and that contractors approved the welds, even though they failed to meet industry standards.

Dr. Cindy Menches, a Civil Engineering professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said the project may have simply been a victim of what was, at the time, a booming period in the construction industry.

"It was at the busiest time in construction history, and most contractors and consultants were having a very difficult time getting high quality labor," Menches said. "At that time, definitely, there were indications in the industry that there was a shortage of high-skilled welders. And so many of weld problems that they are experiencing right now, have to do with the quality of the welding that took place at that time."

Menches predicts the faulty welds will be an ongoing problem.

"They'll have to be monitored to make sure that if a weld crack.. the city will have to catch it. And then they'll have to replace it."

But the welds were only part of the problem. The city further alleges that some tolerances in the project were off by several inches, with some columns nearly five inches taller than others. That forced more design changes, and more delays.

Much of the project was supposed to feature Grade 50 steel, a higher grade of steel designed for use in projects of this magnitude. But the city alleges that Walsh Construction and its subcontractors knew the wrong kind of steel had been delivered and accepted it anyway.

"We allege fraud in our complaint," says city lawyer Diane Pezanowski. "There were actually four thousand tests of the steel itself."

Although the project was supposed to be finished by 2007, the many problems forced repeated delays and repairs. While the city maintains the lion’s share of the work was completed by 2008, remediation has been ongoing. Large, Y-shaped steel braces were added along the curb, to shore up the roof while the repairs were made.

And none of it came cheap. While the original FACE project already weighed in at over $205 million, cost overruns and the ongoing corrections ballooned the bills to over $280 million.

"There were several design errors that later, when they got caught, then caused substantial redesign," Menches said. "That would have added not only a lot of cost, but it would have added time. Some of the redesigns were substantial enough, that they might have taken up to a year to redesign."

The city has withheld payment, and sued the contractors, in an effort to recover the inflated costs. Both sides are now in mediation.

"The goal is to get back everything the city has had to spend as a result of the mistakes of the various contractors," Pezanowski said. "That’s what we are anticipating. We feel that we have a very, very, strong case."

Walsh Construction and the other defendants in the lawsuit did not respond to requests for comment.

If all goes according to plan, the city hopes to stamp "finished" on the FACE Project by September 1st. The steel braces are coming down, and painting is underway.

"The end is going to be great for the traveling public," Pezanowski said. "I think the traveling public and the people who work at O’Hare are going to be pleased, but we were disappointed that we encountered so many problems."

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