Mayor Rahm Emanuel will seek a third-term with a job-and-contract-generating, fundraising ace in his pocket: the $8.5 billion expansion of O’Hare Airport.
The City Council on Wednesday approved a plan so important to Chicago’s future — and the mayor’s — Emanuel rushed out to O’Hare to immediately sign new airline agreements.
Baked into those leases are higher terminals rents and landing fees that will bankroll the $4 billion in general airport revenue and passenger facility charge bonds that aldermen authorized to get the project started.
Asked to assess the political benefit to his re-election campaign, Emanuel called it a “fair question, but not the right question.”
“I’ve made sure that O’Hare and Midway and everything was run — not with politics, but with professional economic interest. That’s why I was willing to take on professionalizing the international terminal,” the mayor said in a telephone interview with the Chicago Sun-Times shortly before the late afternoon signing ceremony.
“O’Hare, because of past decisions and lack of decisions — it’s muscle and its strength for the city economically was beginning to atrophy. This will be a boost of strength to it and something that no other city in the United States will have. A global terminal. A 22 percent increase in gates for the first time in decades. Adding 75 percent more terminal space…This is something unprecedented for the city. You think it’s beneficial to me from a political standpoint? It’s better to have it than not. But, that’s not what’s been the driving factor.”
The City Council approved the $4 billion O’Hare borrowing by a vote of 40-to-1 after Emanuel initially accepted a voice vote, then corrected himself and asked for a roll call. Ald. David Moore (17th) cast the only dissenting vote, citing a shortage of African-Americans on the gravy train of pinstripe patronage tied to the borrowing.
Aldermen Edward Burke (14th) and Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) abstained because of conflicts with their legal practices.
Speaking from the rostrum, Emanuel called it a “watershed moment” and branded the expansion plan “our boarding pass to a brighter and bolder future.”
Political turbulence over the last month had threatened to ground the massive O’Hare makeover. But ultimately, the plan was too big and too important to stop.
“This is a tremendous jobs bill,” Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, said during Wednesday’s debate.
American Airlines was alone among airlines in objecting to the new lease agreements because of the five additional gates Emanuel has awarded to hometown United Airlines, American’s arch-rival.
But American signed on after the city made a hazy promise to speed construction of three common-use gates that favor American because they’re located at the end of an American concourse.
To press their demand for a fair share of jobs and contracts generated by the project, the council’s Black and Hispanic Caucuses had threatened to hold up the $4 billion borrowing that will raise the mountain of O’Hare debt to $13 billion. But they were appeased by the promise to create a task force that will meet quarterly and ride herd over O’Hare expansion contracting and hold Emanuel’s feet to the fire.
“It’s not only about being allowed to enter the party and stand on the edge of the dance floor and just watch. We want to be able to dance as well,” said Ald. Millie Santiago (31st).
The mayor’s plan calls for demolishing Terminal 2 and replacing it with a new “global terminal” shared by United and American that would accept both domestic and international flights. O’Hare would become the first so-called “global alliance hub” in the nation. It will allow domestic airlines and the international carriers they partner with to be in the same terminal — and that means passengers connecting to international flights will avoid the delay and inconvenience of riding the O’Hare people mover to the international terminal.
“You will not need a Fit-Bit to go from international to domestic,” the mayor said Wednesday.
Now that the City Council has granted final sign-off on the airlines leases, the $4 billion borrowing and the contract oversight, Emanuel’s biggest concern is likely to be the logistical nightmare created by the need to rebuild an airport while still managing to keep it open with minimum disruption and inconvenience to passengers.