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Emanuel accused of playing hide the ball on O'Hare runway deal

Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at O'Hare Airport last year with Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was accused Tuesday of playing hide the ball with Northwest Side residents bombarded by O’Hare Airport jet noise.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) demanded to know why Emanuel made no mention of the $1.3 billion deal he had cut with major airlines to build the final runway at O’Hare when he met just two days before that deal was announced with the anti-noise Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition.

During the long-awaited City Hall meeting, Emanuel ruled out saving two diagonal runways slated for demolition that FAIR wants the city to keep and use at night and during off-peak hours to soften the blow of dramatic O’Hare flight-path changes that hit in October 2013.

Using the diagonals at those times would help avoid repeatedly bombarding the same neighborhoods with jet noise. As many as 63,000 Chicago area residents a month have complained about the new barrage of noise since the flight path changes, FAIR contends.

Instead of being up-front about the runway deal he was about to announce, Emanuel slammed the door on saving the diagonal runways without explaining why.

“He just said, `No,’” Napolitano said. “I would have said, `You know what? This is already in place. There’s money already allocated. And I would have said, `We’ve got a deal, but let’s see what we can work out. Let’s see what we can figure out.’”

Although FAIR won legislative approval to give the city the option of keeping the diagonals open, Aviation Commission Ginger Evans later told reporters that was “not feasible” because their use would create air safety issues, interfere with roadway changes needed to create western access to O’Hare and block the airport from adding gates.

Evans told FAIR leaders during the meeting with Emanuel that keeping the diagonals would require building a “$100 million tunnel” to allow western access and “that was a non-starter.” Evans indicated contracts had already been let and money had already been spent on an ongoing $8.7 billion O’Hare overhaul that included the demolition of the two runways.

On Friday night, Napolitano got a call from the mayor’s office inviting him to attend Sunday’s announcement on the runway deal. The alderman ignored the invite.

“Now, I have another runway. So, I’ll officially have four runways coming directly over the 41st Ward. I’ve got people in the hundreds coming into that office, emailing and calling us saying, `You know what? We’re leaving. We’re getting out of here. This is ridiculous,’” Napolitano said.

“I’ve lived off the Kennedy corridor my whole life. Planes were never to the north of us. They were rarely to the south of us. They usually came down that corridor. You can’t use that nonsense that, `You moved next to an airport.’ That’s b.s. What happened is an airport changed. The flight and landing patterns changed completely. And now, you’re telling the residents, `Deal with it.’ These are $700,000 homes.”

Napolitano noted that the city projected 1.2 million landings at O’Hare last year but reached only the 900,000 mark. Still, there were 700,000 noise complaints.

“Now, add another runway. What if we hit 1.3 million or 1.6 million landings? That west end of the city is going to go nuts. It’s a way to say, `We’re going to build this. We gave up on people,’” Napolitano said.

“How do I feel about it? I’m furious. How does my ward feel about it? They’re furious . . . If I’m not here in four years, whoever sits there is going to have the same thing and you know what they’re going to see? People are going to leave. The price of those homes are going to drop and it’s going to turn into a ghost town.”

The mayor’s office issued a statement late Tuesday:

“The Mayor’s goal has always been to ensure that O’Hare thrives as the economic engine of Chicago, but in a balanced way that also protects and preserves the quality of life in every one of Chicago’s neighborhoods. Striking that balance is important to everyone.

“The meeting last week was an opportunity for the Mayor to both hear directly from those who live near O’Hare and to lay out the City’s intention to continue the important work of modernizing the airport while building on the steps we’ve taken to address residents’ concerns.”

Napolitano has introduced an ordinance that would clip Evans’ wings. It would require Evans to seek City Council approval of any O’Hare construction or runway changes. So far, eight other aldermen have signed on to the idea. A ninth, Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), has offered verbal support.

What chance does that ordinance have now that Emanuel has cut his runway deal with major airlines?

“I talked with [Aviation Committee Chairman Mike] Zalewski and I told him, `I need to have this heard.’ And he said, `Okay. We’ll do what we can to have it heard,’” Napolitano said.