Dec. 16--While Chicago officials have long dismissed expanding Midway Airport, the city has quietly gobbled up surrounding land--including parcels that could be used for a protection zone at the end of the runway overshot last week by a Southwest Airlines jet.
In just the latest acquisition effort around the landlocked airport, the city in 2004 passed an ordinance allowing the purchase of land "for use as Runway 31C/13C Runway Protection Zone and airport development."
The Southwest jet skidded off that runway during a snowstorm Dec. 8, striking a car on Central Avenue, killing 6-year-old Joshua Woods and injuring 10 people.
The city's ultimate plans for the land remain unclear. The ordinance shows that the city has set its sights on land at the end of the runway. But officials said Thursday they have no plans to build a protection zone there.
"We have always said we cannot undertake a massive land acquisition program to build a protection zone, and we have no plans to do so," said Erin O'Donnell, a deputy Chicago aviation commissioner who manages Midway.
Since 1990, the city has been involved in 93 transactions to acquire land around Midway. The 2004 ordinance authorizes another four purchases that have not been completed. Including purchases dating to 1948, the city has spent $52 million on nearly 400 parcels around Midway.
Many of the purchases were for other purposes, such as terminal and parking expansion, and "object-free zones" that keep the airport's perimeter clear for planes.
Federal regulators have urged the city since 2000 to improve the safety of Midway's runways, some of the shortest in the nation for a major airport. But the city has not submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration an acceptable plan for how it will prevent planes from overshooting runways.
O'Donnell said even if the city were in favor of a plan to build buffer zones, it owns nowhere near enough land for the project. She said it would also require moving major roads and railroad tracks.
The Woods' attorney said he was not aware the city owned so much land near the crash site.
"This tragedy would have been avoided. It's outrageous," said Ronald Stearney Sr.
Discussion of Midway expansion has always been politically thorny. On Thursday, Mayor Richard Daley dodged questions about the city's failure to buy enough land to make the runways longer and potentially safer.
Asked specifically if he would be open to Midway expansion, Daley said the accident investigation must first be completed.
"You can't speculate," he said. "Sure everybody would like to expand anything, but you just can't do it. I mean we have taken over 10 years to get the runway built at O'Hare Field and we are just starting now."
It is difficult to tell that the city owns the land.
A search of public records turns up only a few properties with the City of Chicago listed as the owner. In more than 300 transactions, the Cook County recorder of deeds search lists "no record found."
That's because in 2001, at the city's request, the county consolidated 382 city-owned parcels, eliminating their individual property identification numbers. O'Donnell said the purpose was not to make the records less accessible to the public, but to make it easier for her staff to track all the tax bills and leases. She said she would check with county property officials to ensure that records of the transactions are more readily accessible.
"The intent is that everything that we do is transparent. ... Our intent is not to provide misleading information," O'Donnell said. "We have nothing to hide."
The airport's most recent acquisition took place in April, when it spent $220,000 for nearly a half-acre of commercial property and a two-story building at 5935 S. Archer Ave., only a few hundred yards from the site of last week's fatal crash.
Its former owner, Gene Richards, said the city gave him an ultimatum: Sell or be condemned.
Studies by the city and the FAA in recent years determined that there is not enough room at the end of Midway's airstrips to install beds of crushable concrete that can slow an aircraft if it slides...
Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly said that the plane had recently had a maintenance check and showed no signs of problems.
The FAA asked city aviation officials in the spring of 2004 to submit safety recommendations for the zones, which are spots where planes can safely stop if they overrun a runway.
Safety zones were recommended a year ago