April 23, 2001

Chicago Sun-Times

U.S. Senate may bypass Ryan

April 23, 2001


WASHINGTON--Members of the U.S. Senate are pushing a plan to strip Gov. Ryan of his power to veto new runways at O'Hare Airport.

Meanwhile, a federal study to be released Wednesday is expected to conclude that a clogged O'Hare contributes to the national airline delay crisis, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

The capacity benchmark report on the nation's 31 largest airports, prepared by the Federal Aviation Administration, is to be discussed before a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee aviation panel hearing Wednesday. The report will argue that O'Hare and seven other airports play major roles in the record airline delay problems.

The senators from Iowa, Charles E. Grassley, a Republican, and Tom Harkin, a Democrat, are circulating a letter designed to pressure the Transportation Department and the FAA to make new runways at O'Hare the "highest priority."

They are asking the federal government to "expeditiously initiate the planning for and the environmental assessment of the construction of two parallel runways at O'Hare."

Chicago area aviation planning is stalemated because Ryan wants to build a third airport at Peotone and Mayor Daley is interested in expanding O'Hare and fostering growth at a potential Peotone rival, the airport in Gary.

Ryan is one of nine governors who have the power to nix construction of new runways, and Grassley and Harkin want to take away state and local authority over O'Hare's fate.

"Simply put, the time for study and local conflict has passed," said the letter Grassley and Harkin are circulating to their Senate colleagues. "What is needed now is concrete action for the benefit of all air travelers across the country."

Grassley and Harkin long have been interested in adding more capacity at O'Hare as a way of providing more and cheaper service to Des Moines and other underserved communities in Iowa.

They are sending their letter to a Senate Appropriations Committee transportation panel considering fiscal 2002 funding. The full committee is chaired by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose wife, Catherine, is a friend of Maggie Daley through their work at the Terra Museum of American Art on Michigan Avenue, where Maggie Daley is a Terra board member and Catherine Stevens has served as the museum's executive director.

Sen. Stevens has been contemplating drafting legislation similar to the Grassley and Harkin proposals to preempt Illinois laws.

The Grassley-Harkin plan, if it were to succeed, takes care of a political problem for Ryan, who is contemplating whether to seek a second term in 2002. If Ryan approved new runways at O'Hare, he would face a political uproar in the Republican anti-O'Hare expansion northwest suburbs. The federal legislation would take the decision out of his hands.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta has said the Chicago area needs more capacity--and is studying alternatives, including adding more flights to Gary and Rockford and building Peotone. Ryan and Daley will be in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with the Illinois congressional delegation, which is as split as the governor and the mayor over area aviation capacity growth.

The Illinois senators are divided over the Iowa plan.

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), an ardent foe of O'Hare expansion, said he did not think Congress had the power to preempt state law. Fitzgerald said he will talk to Grassley and Harkin when Congress returns this week after a spring break.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has been trying to encourage Ryan and Daley to sit down and make a deal.

Chicago's aviation commissioner, Thomas R. Walker, said Sunday that the city would be in favor of being allowed to expand without the governor standing in the way. But if it came to giving up any local control, "that would be negative. . . . We want to be in control of our own destiny," he said.

Ryan spokesman Dennis Culloton had no immediate comment.

[Chicago ATC News]