Emanuel reignites Midway privatization talk

December 21, 2012 (CHICAGO)

A previous attempt to lease Midway fizzled in 2009 under former Mayor Richard Daley.

It is only a plan in its earliest stage but the city has to put something in motion now to meet a December 31 deadline set by the federal government.

The last time the city tried to lease Midway Airport the price was $2.5 billion upfront for 99 years. The deal fell apart when the economy collapsed.

The cash-strapped Emanuel administration wants to hear from bidders what the market is for Midway now.

"Until we talk to the investor community we don't know what the value of this might be," Chicago Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott said. "But it would be irresponsible of us not to look at that and determine whether this is a appropriate opportunity for the city or not."

Taxpayers are still smarting over the 99-year parking meter deal. The city has already spent most of the over $1 billion price of that privatization and derives no additional revenue.

"Are you in fact taking a long term asset that should be available for capital needs and using it for current operational expense?" Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget said. "That's not a good thing to do."

But Emanuel has vowed to use the Midway money only for citywide infrastructure projects like roads, bridges and schools.

"That serves the whole city not just Midway Airport passengers," Scott said.

Unlike the aborted Daley deal, the current administration would limit the term of any lease to 40 years. It would reserve the city's right to share future midway airport profits, require the lessor to provide its own police and fire protection and to sign a travelers' bill of rights to prevent price-gouging and service lapses.

"The city does lose control of that asset. The city is no longer the owner," Alderman Roderick Sawyer said.

Sawyer is one of several skeptical aldermen. He introduced an ordinance to set strict privatization guidelines to protect workers and consumers when public assets are sold.

"Private corporations are there to make money," he said. "They are making a profit. They are going to make that profit at all costs to a certain degree."

Unlike Daley the Emanuel administration is all about transparency this time around and that any deal to lease midway airport will have had a thorough review by the city council and taxpayers, according to Scott.

"We chose to keep the door open, learn more and report back to the public on what is possible," she said.

Emanuel administration officials said that if a deal is made, the city would not take all the money upfront. It would take enough to pay off the airport's debt and take more during the lease based on future Midway profits.

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