Gary airport lands the big one

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Gary airport lands the big one

Postby Big Dog » Tue Jan 17, 2006 2:48 am

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The Gary/Chicago International Airport from west to east. The airport will receive $57.8 million in federal funds to expand its main runway by 2,000 feet. "This makes an emphatic statement this will be the next great Chicago airport," said Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels on Monday.

Gary/Chicago International Airport has landed $57.8 million in Federal Aviation Administration money that airport proponents say will cement its position as Chicago's third airport.

"This makes an emphatic statement this will be the next great Chicago airport," said Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, standing at the airport terminal's west end as union construction workers and others looked on Monday afternoon.

The money will be used to add 2,000 feet to the northwest end of the airport's main runway. The Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railroad tracks, which lie 130 feet from that end of the runway, will be moved westward.

Work on moving the tracks could begin late this year and could be completed by early 2008, according to airport director Paul Karas. Runway expansion work then could begin and would take about two more years.

U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., a key player in securing the funding, pitched the Gary airport Monday as crucial to the economic health of the entire Chicago area.

"If we run out of airport capacity, our economy will stagnate," Bayh said from Washington earlier in the day. "We have to get beyond these petty jurisdictional battles."

The "petty battles" comment refers to the running feud between Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his Illinois allies over Jackson's proposed Abraham Lincoln National Airport in south suburban Peotone.

"Gary/Chicago is a reality on the ground capable of serving people's needs, not a cornfield somewhere," Bayh added in another swipe at Peotone.

The biggest financial contributor to the Gary/Chicago airport until now has been the city of Chicago. It directs a small slice of airline passenger fees from O'Hare and Midway to the airport across the state line.

The politicians and airport officials gathered Monday in Gary brushed aside questions about the airport's viability in light of the fact it once again is without regularly scheduled passenger service. Hooters Air suspended all flights in early January.

Mayor Scott King said there are discussions in progress with other airlines about flying out of Gary/Chicago, and Hooters is being taken at its word that it will resume flights in March.

King and others also say the airport could become a nexus for intermodal transportation in the region, receiving cargo from trucks, ships and trains.

Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta signed the FAA's letter of intent last week to fund the Gary/Chicago airport expansion, according to officials at Monday's airport gathering. It now must be reviewed by appropriations committees in both houses of Congress.

Bayh and U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., described that review as a "formality" Monday. They said the FAA could have a contract for the city of Gary to sign within six weeks.

"This area of the state is going to be the next growth engine of the state of Indiana," Visclosky said.

More immediately, the construction project will create about 320 jobs, Visclosky said. A crowd of construction workers wearing black jackets emblazoned with the gold logo of the International Union of Operating Engineers was at Monday's airport gathering.

"We believe as Gov. Daniels, Congressman Visclosky and Mayor King do, that the Gary airport is a vital part of the economy of Northwest Indiana," said David Fagan, financial secretary for Operating Engineers Local 150.

The $57.8 million in FAA funding would come to the airport over a 10-year period, but would allow the airport authority to borrow money it needs now up front.

In addition to the FAA funding, the airport authority says it has $14.3 million more in funding rounded up, leaving it $13 million short of what it needs to complete the project.

Rounding up more funding is one of many hurdles the project must get over. Others include acquisition of land west of the runway and getting a signed agreement from the EJ&E Railroad on moving the tracks.

The EJ&E, owned by Transtar Inc., continues to talk with airport officials about moving the tracks, according to Transtar spokesman John Armstrong.

Land acquisition and environmental cleanup are among issues that have to be worked out. Transtar is a subsidiary of U.S. Steel Corp. It serves U.S. Steel's Gary Works and a host of other heavy industries throughout Northwest Indiana and greater Chicago.

"The ball is pretty much in their court now," Armstrong said of the airport authority.

At Monday's event at the Gary/Chicago terminal, King said he met with Mineta six weeks ago to make the case for airport funding. He said Daniels followed up with his own pitch. That may have been particularly effective as Daniels and Mineta were colleagues in the Bush administration, where the governor was budget director.

The mayor also pointed out more than $15 million in airport investments already made with the approval of the Gary Common Council were the key to getting the airport to this point.

"I'm now in my 11th year as mayor, and I can't think of anything of this scope and scale where I have seen better or more coordinated cooperation," King said. ... "Everybody worked off the same piece of sheet music."

NWITimes 1/17/06
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