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Alderman: If Midway privatization plan flies, neighbors could be hurt

Jets take off lMidway Airport city's southwest side Friday June 29 2012. Passengers were stranded for hours after runway lights

Jets take off and land at Midway Airport on the city's southwest side Friday, June 29, 2012. Passengers were stranded for hours after runway lights went out overnight. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 23, 2013 2:25PM

An influential alderman raised red flags Wednesday about the privatization of Midway Airport, spelling political trouble for Mayor Rahm Emanuel if the project is cleared for takeoff.

Aviation Committee Chairman Michael Zalewski (23rd), whose ward includes Midway, said he’s concerned that a private contractor would attempt to shoehorn more late-night flights into the airport.

That could make life miserable for noise-weary Southwest Side residents, particularly those whose homes don’t qualify for soundproofing at city expense.

“A private operator is gonna look to every avenue to recoup its investment. More flights means more passengers and more revenue from parking and concessions,” said Zalewski, a mayoral appointee to the committee advising Emanuel on whether to privatize Midway.

“We’ve always had kind of a quiet-time agreement out there between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Lately, flights are pushing 11 p.m. With a private operator, it takes the gloves off what we can control. The spill-off into the local neighborhood is real. There are blocks beneath these flight paths where one side of the street is sound-proofed and the other side is not in the decibel range.”

He’s referring to to a city program in which residents receive windows and other sound-proofing based on their proximity to the airport.

Zalewski said he’s also concerned about the fate of hundreds of Midway concession employees. State law includes job guarantees, but only for city employees at Midway.

The job concerns are exacerbated by the fact that one of two finalists for the Midway lease — Spain’s Ferrovial — has been accused of “union busting and black-listing,” Zalewski said.

“A number of employees from Europe came to see me last week with these allegations — that one of the finalists is a notorious union-busting company,” the alderman said.

“I told them I needed proof. I’m awaiting that documentation. But, if it’s true, that’s a huge problem” that would require Emanuel to either risk a political donnybrook with organized labor’s City Council allies or award the contract to the only other bidder, Zalewski said.

Great Britain’s largest union has alleged that a union shop steward on a massive London tunnel project that includes Ferrovial was fired and black-listed after raising health and safety concerns on behalf of rank-and-file employees.

Last month, British union leaders joined the United Steelworkers in conducting informational picketing at a Canadian tollway extension project east of Toronto that involved Ferrovial.

Company officials could not be reached for comment.

The Midway sweepstakes is down to two bidding groups, with final bids due in a few weeks.

The Great Lakes Airport Alliance is a partnership between Ferrovial and Australia’s Macquarie Group that leased the Chicago Skyway for 99 years. The rival team includes Industry Funds Management of Australia and Manchester Airports Group.

Zalewski’s reservations could be a turning point if Emanuel chooses to revive a $2.5 billion privatization deal that collapsed in 2009 for lack of financing. Chicago taxpayers were left with a $126 million windfall — earnest money investors forfeited after the deal fell through. But, the city was left with no long-term solution to the pension crisis that threatens to blow a $1 billion hole in Chicago’s 2015 budget.

Well aware of the parking meter hangover, Emanuel has vowed to structure his Midway deal differently than former Mayor Richard M. Daley did — with a 40-year lease, profit-sharing for Chicago taxpayers and safeguards against consumer price-gouging.

Instead of obligating the city to pay for police and fire protection, the private operator would assume that $17 million-a-year cost.

Last month, Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott offered a lengthy defense of the benefits that could be derived from privatizing Midway that strongly suggested Emanuel would give it a try.

She argued that under federal law, Midway revenues must remain at the airport. The only way to take them out — and share the wealth citywide — is to lease the airport to a private operator.

State law requires 90 percent of the profits generated by privatizing Midway to be used to bankroll city infrastructure projects and shore up under-funded city employee pension funds.

Still, Zalewski said Wednesday he’s not at all certain Emanuel will give the project the green light.

“Every other privatization problem was under a different mayor. This one would be squarely on Emanuel. He’d have to wear the jacket for it,” Zalewski said, stopping just short of opposing the deal.

“This mayor is smarter than the average bear. He knows that. He has tried to make sure this thing is vetted thoroughly before it’s ever brought to the City Council.”


Twitter: @fspielman

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