Save Meigs: Take Three

 - January 15, 2008, 6:34 AM

The fate of Chicago’s Meigs Field (CGX), still in limbo because of Senate inaction last year, has not disappeared from the radar screen of Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). On January 7, the first day of the 108th Congress, he introduced legislation that would ensure the future of the downtown lakefront airport.

Protection for Meigs, which Chicago mayor Richard Daley (D) covets as a future park, was included last year in a bill to add runways at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) and build an entirely new facility at Peotone, Ill. While the House passed it by the overwhelming vote of 343-87, it languished in the Senate until the 107th Congress adjourned.

Meigs was included in the bill as part of an compromise on Chicagoland airport issues between Mayor Daley and former Illinois governor George Ryan, who had sided with general aviation and business leaders to keep CGX open. Ryan testified before the House aviation subcommittee early last year that Daley had agreed to keep Meigs operating as an airport at least until 2006. After that, the city would need the Illinois General Assembly to pass a law to close the airport, and have that signed into law by the governor.

“The city will otherwise keep Meigs open until 2026,” said Ryan. By making it part of a federal law, it meant that a future state legislature or governor could not renege on the compromise Meigs itself did not appear to have any outright opponents in Congress, but it tended to get lost in the opposition to expanding O’Hare and building Peotone. But Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), a certificated private pilot, reminded his colleagues on the subcommittee that “a stellar piece of the bill [H.R.3479] was Meigs Field,” which he described as an important issue for GA. He added that people from his community often fly to CGX to visit Chicago museums and other attractions in the city.

“Most other communities would give their eye teeth for a downtown airport,” said Ehlers, who called the lakeside airport “a jewel.”

Durbin’s bill, S.83, is cosponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), as well as Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), both of whom are pilots. A companion bill is expected to be introduced soon in the House.