Transportation Secretary jumps into O’Hare expansion flap

February 8, 2011

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The nation's highest-ranking transportation official is stepping into a fight over expanding O'Hare Airport. 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a long-time Illinois congressman from Peoria, is set to host a meeting Wednesday morning between Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and the CEOs of United and American Airlines, the mayor confirmed Tuesday. Those carriers are suing to block a major expansion of O'Hare that the city wants them to help pay for. The airlines say the multi-billion dollar investment, which would build a new terminal and new runways, isn't necessary until air traffic picks up.

But Daley said the city needs to stay on track to break ground this spring.

"We have a construction project dealing with re-alignment and rebuilding runways. That is important," Daley told reporters Tuesday. "If we delay it - there's no delay in New York City on construction. No delay at Reagan Airport [in Washington, D.C.]. No delay in Atlanta."

A Daley spokeswoman LaHood reached out to the city to organize the meeting late last week, after the mayor publicly chastised them for cancelling an earlier meeting due to a major winter storm, but then being hesitant to reschedule.

The mayor on Tuesday credited Illinois U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, a fellow Democrat, with acting as a go-between for the airlines in the city. Durbin and Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, recently met with the airlines to try and revive negotiations between the carriers and the city over the final phase of the O'Hare Modernization Project.

A spokesman for Chicago-based United confirmed that the company's CEO, Jeffery A. Smisek, is planning to attend Wednesday's meeting in Washington. A representatives for American Airlines and the Department of Transportation did not immediately return phone calls for comment.