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Chicago claims it was forced to use federal funds to destroy MeigsChicago claims it was forced to use federal funds to destroy Meigs

Chicago claims it was forced to use federal funds to destroy Meigs
The world's busiest "abandoned" airport

We had to spend airport funds. Meigs Field was an "abandoned" airport that had to be cleaned up! That's the gist of Chicago's response to an FAA probe into whether the city illegally used federal funds.

And from here, as Lewis Carroll would say, it gets curiouser and curiouser. Incredible as it may seem, the city's attorneys argued that if Chicago hadn't spent that money, it might have had to sue itself for not removing the runway, taxiways, control tower, and other airport infrastructure.

Acting on a complaint filed by AOPA in February, the FAA has proposed fining Chicago $33,100 for not providing 30-days notice before closing Meigs Field. The FAA is also investigating whether the city illegally diverted $1.5 million in federal funds intended for O'Hare Airport improvements, instead using the money to rip up Meigs' runway and tear down the control tower.

In a 40-page legal brief responding to the FAA's notice of investigation, Chicago admitted that it actually spent $2.8 million of O'Hare and Midway airport development funds to destroy Meigs and remove any evidence that it was once an airport. A city legal department spokesperson told the Chicago Sun-Times , "It's not in the public interest for a municipality to leave behind an abandoned airport."

"This is yet another insult. Our 400,000 members know this airport wasn't abandoned. Meigs Field was willfully destroyed by elected officials using public monies that were intended for airport construction, not destruction," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "We're analyzing the city's brief to determine if there is an appropriate legal response from AOPA. But it's clear that the city is - once again - engaging in revisionist history and justification." (See " Mayor Daley tries to explain away FAA fines for Meigs destruction.")

The city also claimed that the FAA knew the airport was going to be torn up. But the legal brief essentially concedes AOPA's and the FAA's charge, saying that the city "notified the FAA orally and by letter dated March 31, 2003, of the deactivation of Meigs." Of course, it was shortly after midnight that morning that Mayor Daley sent the bulldozers in to rip up the runway and taxiways, hardly the 30-days notice required by the FAA.

Chicago's hired legal guns justified the use of airport funds to destroy Meigs because the airport "lost its lease" with the Chicago Park District. (The park district is technically a separate legal entity from the city of Chicago, but the mayor appoints the seven-member governing board. And the current Park District superintendent is the man who oversaw Meigs' destruction as Mayor Daley's chief of infrastructure and operations.)

Since the park district "didn't want" the airport infrastructure that local and federal taxpayers had built and improved since 1949, the city was obligated under Illinois law to restore the property to its 1949 condition.

"Had the city not removed the airport-related improvements as required, the city would have been exposed to potential monetary and equitable claims for failure to remove such improvements," the legal brief claims. Of course, it would have been the Chicago Park District making those "claims" against the city of Chicago - the city suing itself.

The city's lawyers also claimed that there was precedent in using federal airport dollars to destroy an airport, citing the examples of Denver, Colorado, and Austin, Texas. What they glossed over in their brief, however, was that in both cases, the old airports were replaced with new airports, and the FAA had approved the expenditure of funds in advance.

If the FAA determines Chicago used airport funds improperly, it could fine the city three times the amount of diverted funds. That could make the fine $8.4 million, in addition to $33,100 for improper notification.

December 6, 2004

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