Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has kicked hundreds of families out of their homes and relocated a cemetery full of buried bodies to build a whopping $15 billion airport expansion Chicago residents oppose, airlines don’t want and he doesn’t have the money to build.
The kicker is that Daley stands a solid chance of getting a good chunk of the boondoggle funded in Washington's forthcoming stimulus bill under Barack Obama’s pledge to dramatically increase infrastructure spending.
The “O’Hare Modernization Project,” signed by disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2003, has enabled the city to seize 433 acres of land from surrounding villages under a special “quick-take authority” power given to Daley by the state. The city even uprooted a 108-year old cemetery, requiring families to find a new home for the 1,500 bodies resting there, in the process of taking some of its first tracts of land.
Bensenville, a middle class suburban community that borders the airport on the south and west corners, is one of those villages. So far, the city of Chicago has taken 600 parcels of land from Bensenville, representing 15 percent of the village’s total area. 533 of those parcels were single-family homes. Approximately 90 of them were businesses.
“It’s all been snatched up,” said Bensenville City Manager Jim Johnson, who opposes the project. Johnson is now trying to prevent the demolition of those homes because proper guarantees have not been made for the health and safety of the community.
While that battle is being waged in court, all that’s left are essentially vacant buildings, many of them livable homes in good condition. [Click here to see a web video of the area.]
Last fall, OMP completed its first phase, which involved the construction of a new $565 million runway and tower on the airport’s north side. At the time, airlines seemed supportive of the project in public appearances and threw a lavish party to celebrate in September. The festivities included outdoor tents pitched on the runway, refreshments. Mayor Daley even timed his speech so that a plane would land during the address—a grandiose move mocked by local reporters.
“That’s United,” Daley said during his speech. “I want to thank them for landing during my speech. Perfect. That’s a great shot for TV.”
Behind-closed doors, however, airlines were unsupportive of the project, calling it “inappropriate” and “ill-conceived” in letters to the Federal Aviation Administration. American, United, Delta, Northwest Airlines, Continental Airlines and ANA-All Nippon told the FAA the plan was flawed in documents obtained by the Chicago Tribune in November.
One unnamed Delta Air Lines executive even called the plan an “impulsive grab for [tax] funds.”
The airlines were specifically opposed to request made by the city to FAA to approve a tax increase on passenger ticket sales to raise $182 million to pay for second phase of the project. Daley has also sought federal grants from the FAA.
Others have criticized OMP for including an extra $2 million to create 15-acres of protected wetlands for environmentally-friendly efforts like sheltering the state’s endangered black-crowned night heron. Daley’s insistence the project is completed by 2014 so that the airport can accommodate tourists traveling to Chicago in 2016 for the Summer Olympics, has also been ridiculed. (A site for the games has not yet been selected).
“We’d like to put a knife in this project,” City Manager Johnson said. “It is not about providing aviation capacity, it is not about providing any services for the traveling public and the taking of this property is unnecessary because the project doesn’t work and they don’t have the money to fund it.”
Mayor Daley doesn’t seem too concerned about these issues raised. He recently said he would bypass state legislators to lobby the federal government for funding under President-elect Obama’s $800 billion stimulus bill.
“Mayors are going directly to the federal government,” he recently told reporters. “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.
“That’s how you do creative financing,” he added.