Chicago Mayor Seeking Bailout Money for $15 Billion Airport Albatross
Now that Governor Rod Blagojevich is, politically speaking, pushing up daises, attention in the Land of Lincoln is going to be drawn to efforts by Chicago's Mayor Daley to latch on to a portion of the coming "stimulus package" in order to fund his dream of expanding O'Hare Airport.
Never mind that no one wants to pay for it -- including the city, the county, the state, the airlines, the taxpayers, or, until now, the federal government. Never mind that the FAA's own studies show that the expansion will not relieve the heavily congested runways or mitigate the problem with delays. Never mind that getting around the expanded airport would be a nightmare for passengers, some of whom would be forced to take an hour-long shuttle ride from one parking lot to the American Airlines terminal. Never mind that an airplane that lands on the northern runway will have to taxi 45 minutes to get to the United terminal. And never mind that hundreds of residents from tiny Bensenville, IL, have already been forcibly removed from their homes despite the fact that the next phase of the expansion is in financial limbo and may never be completed.
No one contests the idea that the traffic problems at O'Hare are serious and must be addressed. Anyone who has spent an hour on a runway waiting to take off or circled the airport for even longer waiting to land cannot deny that what once was "the busiest airport in the world" has become a quagmire of delays, impossibly long lines for security, and a traffic nightmare guaranteed to give even the most even tempered driver a severe case of road rage.
But Hizzoner, for personal, political, and financial reasons, insists that expanding O'Hare is just the ticket. And when Mayor Richard Daley gets it in his head that something is absolutely necessary for his beloved city, he can be a fearsome force with which to tangle. You don't cross Daley in Chicago unless you're on pretty solid footing, which is why he has a legion of opponents who are making his life miserable by trying to block the expansion.
The reasons not to spend $15 billion to grow O'Hare to an impossibly large size include alternatives that are cheaper or make more sense for the region. But in the case of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., there's an equally unworthy project on which money can be wasted: another airport.
The feud between Daley and Jackson is very personal. Jackson said some nasty things a few years ago about Daley's legendary father, Richard J. Daley, that didn't sit well with the current incarnation of the mayoral dynasty. And Jackson's wife has been a thorn in the side of Daley from her perch on the city council, where she serves as alderman of the seventh ward. Jesse Jackson Sr. also had an uncomfortable relationship with Daley, as the good Reverend's power base among the south side African American community reveres the memory of former mayor Harold Washington, the only African American ever elected mayor in Chicago and the only man ever to defeat a Daley in a Democratic primary (1982).
Proving that anyone can propose wasting a bushel full of taxpayer money if one has enough gumption, Jackson Jr. went Daley one better and has made it his mission in life to build a whole new airport in the south suburbs near Peotone. If Jackson gets his way, his proposed land grab in Peotone would be three times larger than O'Hare. It would turn 24,000 acres of the richest, most productive farm land in the world into a white elephant of an airport. The FAA and the state of Illinois have other ideas and current plans -- still subject to change -- now call for a much more modest project.
But that hasn't stopped the feud between the two men from becoming even more bitter. Daley has ridiculed the idea of a second airport in Peotone, and has worked vigorously to see that plans for it never take shape. Jackson, for his part, has taken great delight in pointing out the huge deficiencies in Daley's O'Hare expansion plan.
And those deficiencies are legion. Daley's proposal flies in the face of reality. Admittedly, politicians never let such mundane considerations stand in the way of committing to a boondoggle. In Daley's case, he thinks he has good reason to oppose both the Peotone project (and other proposals for expanding airports in nearby Gary, Indiana, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin) while pushing the expansion of O'Hare.
First and foremost, any traffic lost by O'Hare to other airports means less tax money for the city of Chicago. Not only is there a hefty $8 a passenger airport fee for everyone flying into O'Hare, but the city makes gobs of money taking a slice of concessions, taxi and limo fares, shuttle buses, parking, and the very profitable business of towing cars from in front of terminals if you are dumb enough not to believe the signs and leave your car running while you help your grandma with her bags. Chicago stands to lose tens of millions of dollars if common sense were to intrude and other airports expanded to ease the traffic congestion at O'Hare.
But really, the worst kept secret in town is that Daley wants to expand O'Hare so that it can handle all those international passengers who will be coming to Chicago in 2016 for the Olympics. Not that Chi-Town has much of a chance against Tokyo, Rio, or Madrid to acquire the games. But Daley's dream to put Chicago on the world map -- born of the natural inferiority felt by Chicagoans who must endure the moniker of "Second City" for all time -- he sees as his legacy, the crowning achievement of his long mayoralty. When you get right down to it, $15 billion is a small price to pay for immortality. That is, if it was his money.
But it isn't and that's where the bailout comes in. Having recently completed one phase of the expansion which involved opening a new runway and clearing the way for tearing down those houses in Bensenville, Daley has now turned his sights to the what promises to be the biggest opportunity in the history of Chicago politics for graft, corruption, cronyism, feather bedding, and straight out palm greasing. The hogs may be feeding at the trough in Washington as lobbyists vie with each other to see who can snarf up the most cash for worthless pet projects, but in Chicago, the vultures are circling the airport, waiting for the carrion represented by that stimulus money to appear like a dead elephant on one of those unfinished runways.
The possibility that Daley will be successful in getting a cut of the stimulus money is pretty good. He has kind of an "in" with our new president; not only does Barack Obama hail from Chicago, but many of his top advisers cut their political teeth helping to run Daley's corrupt machine. And if all else fails, he has the second ranking Democrat in the Senate in his hip pocket. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin usually jumps before Daley even says "boo," so there is a very strong likelihood that Hizzoner will get his money.
But isn't this one of those "infrastructure" projects that are "shovel-ready" and raring to go once the cash has been snatched from the taxpayer? Won't it create tons of new jobs? Isn't this why the stimulus bill was created in the first place?
All true, but wouldn't it make more sense if we took all the people who would get jobs created by funding this lemon and put them to work digging a ditch from Chicago to Rockford? The airlines say they don't need it. The FAA is dubious. Air travelers will not be enamored of paying more for the privilege of landing there. And I'll bet the residents of Bensenville who have been kicked out of their homes would love to know that their eviction was for a purpose beyond the personal political aggrandizement of a mayor who has proved himself a bully in the past. It's easy to forget Daley's middle of the night vandalism of Meigs Field, where he ordered city bulldozers to tear up the runways, stranding more than a dozen planes in a spat with local airport bureaucrats and politicians.
The Machine's clout with Washington is not what it once was. But Daley knows where his bread is buttered:
"Mayors are going directly to the federal government. They have to. We can't wait. You can't allow Springfield to take your money, hold the interest, then eventually give it to you in the middle of winter. You'll never get the job done in the middle of winter," Daley told reporters.
"You just go straight to the federal government and say, 'We have all the construction ready to go. We have matching funds. Let's go with it.' You cannot layer from the federal government to the state government. By the time it gets back to local government, it's after the construction season. We can't allow that."
Daley was cagey when asked how a city struggling to survive its worst budget crisis in recent history would come up with the matching funds needed to qualify for federal grants. That's normally where the state comes in.
"That's how you do creative financing," he said.
Daley's "creative financing" is more smoke and mirrors than wizardry with accounting. It's laughingly referred to as "build now, pay years later," as the mayor plans to borrow the money and then hold up the airlines at gunpoint to help him pay it back. It hasn't a ghost of a chance and will only make O'Hare less competitive, probably costing jobs in the end. All this at a time when the airlines are looking at declining passenger loads and revenue shortfalls in the billions.
The bottom line is that Daley will get what he wants because he can. He will have the unions on his side as much of the expansion money will go to improving and building roads like the lightly used Elgin-O'Hare expressway and a whole new highway for the western suburbs. Meanwhile, other more critical infrastructure projects will go unfunded.
If there is one project that should be a poster child for how rotten this stimulus bill is proving to be, how utterly devoid of logic and reason it is, Mayor Daley's $15 billion albatross of an airport expansion is it.