Chicago Meigs Airport deal not yet set in stone

 - May 15, 2008, 8:11 AM

A bill moving through Congress that would dramatically expand Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) would also protect tiny Meigs Field (CGX) for the next quarter century. But opposition to the proposal to add runways at O’Hare and build an entirely new airport at Peotone, Ill., could scuttle the deal.

H.R.3479 calls for reconfiguring ORD to eight runways–including six parallel runways–constructing a “south suburban” airport near Peotone and continuing the operation of Meigs as a general aviation airport. Introduced by Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.), whose district includes Chicago Midway Airport (MDW), it has garnered both considerable support and strenuous opposition.

Meigs became part of the mix as a compromise between Chicago mayor Richard Daley (D), who wants to close the lakefront facility and turn it into a park, and Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R), who sides with GA and business leaders who want to keep it open.

And although both Daley and Ryan made nice at a hearing before the House aviation subcommittee last month, the Chicago mayor left no doubt he would rather have a park than an airport. That begs the question–what happens to Meigs if the O’Hare-Peotone proposal is scuttled, either entirely or in part?

For his part, Ryan admitted that he was not in favor of expanding O’Hare because of long-standing opposition from suburbs near that airport. Instead, he favored building a new, additional airport in Peotone, about 40 nm south of ORD.

The deal to expand O’Hare, build Peotone and assure the future viability of Meigs was hammered out between Daley and Ryan after years of often acrimonious debate. Were the agreement to be made part of a federal law, a future state legislature or governor could not renege on the compromise. While Daley is often referred to in Chicago as “mayor for life,” Ryan’s term as governor ends next January.

Ryan said Daley has acceded to keep Meigs open at least until 2006, and that was “a big part” of the negotiations. After 2006, 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.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee, said in a memo to House members that H.R.3479 directs the FAA to implement the agreement reached between the governor and the mayor; requires expedited environmental reviews; directs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to modify the Illinois State Implementation Plan, if necessary; and provides for priority consideration of a letter of intent (LOI) for Peotone.

While Meigs itself doesn’t appear to have any outright opponents in Congress, H.R.3479 does, including Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).

Mica admitted that despite the agreement between Daley and Ryan, several Chicago-area community organizations remain opposed to any expansion of O’Hare. And national environmental groups have also expressed opposition based on concerns regarding the precedent of codifying the agreement into federal law.

Lipinski apparently named H.R.3479 the “National Aviation Capacity Expansion Act” because, while O’Hare alternates with Atlanta Hartsfield as the nation’s (and the world’s) busiest airport, in 2000 it was one of the worst commercial airports for delays (seventh) and the worst airport in the nation in terms of cancellations.

Mica pointed out that if congestion at O’Hare affected only the Chicago area, Congress might continue to ignore the issue. However, ORD’s capacity problems “create havoc” for the entire national air transportation system.

“In 2000 there were 50 days where problems at O’Hare affected operations at 67 or more other airports,” Mica said. “In fact, on one day in June 2000, delays at Chicago caused delays at 86 airports around the country.” He added that 15.4 percent of all delays nationwide were attributable to problems at O’Hare.

Daley said that a federal imprimatur is needed for the agreement because, in the 10 to 15 years that he estimated for completion, it could be stopped by future governors.

While the issue of Meigs gets lost in the mainstream press, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) reminded the subcommittee that “a stellar piece of the bill was Meigs Field,” which he described as an important issue for general aviation. A licensed private pilot, he said that people from his community often fly to Meigs Field to visit Chicago museums and other attractions in the Windy City.  

“Most other communities would give their eye teeth for a downtown airport,” said Ehlers, who called the historic lakeside field a “jewel.” Another GA pilot on the subcommittee, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), agreed with Ehlers.

According to Ryan, he and Daley have had a “particularly good” working relationship. But he characterized the compromise as “one of the most significant agreements ever reached by a Chicago mayor and a governor.”

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), never at a loss for words when it comes to aviation, called the agreement “the Camp David Accords of aviation.” The former head of the aviation subcommittee said the debate on H.R.3479 “may be the most important dialogue on aviation outside of security that we have this year.”