Kirk tackles dispute over O'Hare expansion

January 14, 2011 3:37:55 PM PST
The state's new U.S. Senator says he will get involved in a flap over funding for the O'Hare expansion project.

Sen. Mark Kirk says he will personally ask the airlines to back a new borrowing plan proposed by Mayor Richard Daley.

The opponents of O'Hare expansion used to say with regularity that the project would never be completed and that it would collapse under its own financial weight. Just as consistently, the city would say that is absolutely wrong.

The city and its principle airline partners -- United and American -- have been at odds for months over financing the expansion, and the bump in the road isn't getting any smaller.

Through a variety of fees, the airlines pay for most of the cost of O'Hare's new runways.

Business is not what it has been in years past, and the airlines would prefer slowing down O'Hare expansion because of cost.

The city says they're moving ahead as planned.

"We're very confident where we are," Daley said. "This is important 'cause we're not building runways for the airlines today. We're building runways for passengers so there are no delays in bad weather or anything like that."

The city's latest $1 billion bond issue for O'Hare expansion is set up in such a way to postpone the start of paying it off. That makes it more expensive. United and American say you cannot do that without their approval. They hint at legal action if the city moves forward.

"I would like them not to go to court because we need to maintain momentum," Kirk said.

Kirk had a 'lay-of-the-land' meeting with Chicago's aviation commissioner Friday, saying afterward that he hopes to help push all parties in the same direction.

"The next set of meetings I'll have is with the airlines," Kirk said. "We're in a difficult relationship, I understand, with American -- better with United. I think Senator Durbin and I want to rebuild that partnership to make sure we're growing."

O'Hare expansion continues, but not at the pace the city had hoped for.

For instance, the homes are all gone from a section of Bensenville. They were removed to make way for two runways that are part of the next phase of O'Hare expansion.

As the city pushes forward with its bond issue, one bond ratings service has slightly downgraded the O'Hare bond rating, which adds another layer of expense. The city's aviation commissioner says the downgrade is not of major consequence.

"That's like, I don't know, when you were younger and you came home with your report card one day with an A-plus. The next time you came home with an A-minus. Your mom still wanted you to have the A-plus but she was pretty happy with an A right? So we're pleased with our ratings. We're doing well," said Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino.

American Airlines and the city have not talked about the O'Hare expansion for a year. United and the city talk but still disagree.

The airlines would be responsible for paying off about one-tenth of the $1 billion bond issue that the city is pursuing; but, $100 million is not change in a jar, and the airlines insist that their O'Hare leases give them approval rights over bond issues.

Officially, the airlines are not commenting and will not say if they intend to sue the city.