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4/8/03 Sen. Inhofe

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Senator derides Meigs arrogance
Oklahoma's Inhofe says he's `ashamed of Chicago';

[West Final Edition]
John McCormick, Tribune staff reporter
Tribune staff reporter Brett McNeil contributed to this report.
Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Ill.:

Mayor Richard Daley's decision to close Meigs Field remained under fire Monday as a national association of pilots filed a federal lawsuit and an influential U.S. senator called the nighttime destruction of its runway "an act of arrogant recklessness."

Prior to a public hearing in Chicago, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R- Okla.), chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, was vague when asked if Daley's actions would hurt Chicago's efforts to win federal road and bridge money.

"Tearing up a runway is destroying infrastructure," said Inhofe, a pilot who has used Meigs. "It's just awfully difficult to come and find out ... that several million dollars of infrastructure was destroyed."

Later, Inhofe said Daley's actions were "reminiscent of the 1920s" and that he was "a little bit ashamed of Chicago right now," as he prepared to listen to testimony from transportation, business and labor leaders gathered in the Dirksen Federal Building.

In U.S. District Court in Chicago, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association filed a lawsuit accusing the city of violating federal regulations by failing to give at least 30-days' notice before closing the lakefront airport's runway.

Besides the city, the lawsuit names the Chicago Park District, which owns the land where the airport has been located for 55 years.

The federal lawsuit charges there was no compelling reason for Chicago to close Meigs without giving notice to the FAA and pilots, especially since the city had won a temporary flight restriction over downtown.

"Aircraft utilizing Meigs Field pose no threat to the greater Chicagoland area, and certainly no greater threat than aircraft in transit to and from O'Hare and Midway," the lawsuit states.

The pilots' association has also urged its nearly 400,000 members to boycott Chicago and avoid taking flights through the city. It also called for a freeze on federal airport funding for O'Hare and Midway until Meigs reopens.

The federal lawsuit is similar to one filed Friday by an advocacy group, Friends of Meigs Field, which contends the city failed to provide proper notice to the Illinois Department of Transportation before closing the runway.

On Friday, a Cook County judge ordered the city to preserve the taxiway, terminal building and other components that make up the airport until he hears arguments on whether the city's actions were legal.

A court hearing is set for mid-May, although city officials say they plan to file a motion this week to have the case dismissed.

Daley ordered the runway destroyed last week, citing concerns that a small-plane pilot could use the airport to launch a terrorist attack on the city's downtown. He and park officials are also interested in building a "natural area" park on the site.

Responding to the federal lawsuit, a city Law Department spokeswoman said the FAA notice requirement doesn't apply because there are exemptions for cases involving public safety or unreasonable hardship.

Calling it "an example of democracy in Chicago," U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) said he was disappointed to see Meigs closed but added that the mayor was within his authority to do what he did.

"I don't see a whole lot that I'm in the position to do about it," said Fitzgerald, who asked Inhofe to hold the Chicago hearing. "I would hope that the closure of Meigs Field would not prejudice Illinois or Chicago requests for funding."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a Daley ally who unsuccessfully tried to guide legislation for the expansion of O'Hare through the Senate, said he didn't know whether the Meigs closing would hurt Chicago's ability to win federal money.

Durbin staff members, however, said Meigs likely would still be open if the O'Hare expansion bill that Fitzgerald opposed had passed.

Construction of a south suburban airport and keeping Meigs open until at least 2006, and possibly through 2026, were two factors that led to the O'Hare runway deal between Daley and then-Gov. George Ryan in 2001.

Another member of the state's congressional delegation played down Inhofe's comments about Meigs and backed Daley's decision.

"Hopefully Sen. Inhofe will decide it's closed and there's nothing he can do about it," said Rep. Bill Lipinski, (D-Ill.), a senior member of the House Transportation Committee. "Meigs Field certainly wasn't the biggest cog for aviation in the state of Illinois."

[Illustration] PHOTO; Caption: PHOTO (color): U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), along with Illinois' U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (right), discusses area transit needs Monday. Tribune photo by James F. Quinn.

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