Improvements to the Gary Airport

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The person who really helped and used his convening power to get everyone in meetings in Washington was really the presence of Senator Joe Donnelly. He said that this is important to the city of Gary and we need to make this a priority.
— Karen Freeman-Wilson, Mayor of Gary
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For more than 18 months, Joe and his staff worked closely with key stakeholders to resolve issues that had stalled the completion of the Gary/Chicago International Airport runway expansion project. He helped play a critical role in ensuring the project’s completion and participated in the official opening of the newly expanded runway in July 2015. The runway now is equipped to land larger cargo and passenger planes, meaning the airport can accommodate an increase in the volume of passengers and cargo traveling to and from northwest Indiana. Joe is hopeful the expansion will have a positive economic impact on Gary Airport, Gary, and northwest Indiana. 

Joe’s involvement in the project began during a meeting in 2013 when Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson expressed concern about looming deadlines and agreements with multiple railroads to remove and relocate railroad tracks. Without agreements by June 25, 2015, the runway would have been shortened due to FAA safety requirements. Shortening the runway would have significantly limited the types of cargo and passenger planes that could land at Gary Airport and reduced the volume of passengers and cargo traveling in and out of the airport. 

Joe pledged to work with stakeholders, resolve unsettled issues, and see the project to the finish line, vowing to help ensure the project moved forward and would get completed in time. 

Joe and his office then facilitated weekly calls with the railroad companies to work through outstanding issues. With significant hurdles remaining, Joe called for and helped arrange two additional meetings to work directly with the railroad companies at the Gary Airport. Throughout the process, Joe worked with all parties involved to ensure an agreement could be reached successfully and on time.

In October 2014, all the parties reached an agreement, and on June 25, 2015, the first plane landed on the Gary Airport’s new runway. Since then, Gary Airport has seen a 13.2% rise in its operations



In the News

Post-Tribune: Taking Off: How the Runway Project Was Completed (June 2015)

By: Christin Nance Lazerus 

Friday will mark the completion of the runway expansion at the Gary/Chicago International Airport — a $174.1 million project that took nearly 15 years to plan and execute. It got bogged down several times due to securing local funding, finalizing negotiations to relocate three major railroads and efforts to mitigate legacy pollution within the airport footprint.

But eventually a combination of local and national leaders and airport employees worked to remove the obstacles big and small.

Here's how they did it.

The length of the airport's runway proved to be a significant obstacle for potential commercial and cargo carriers at 7,000 feet in length and it was hemmed in by an elevated Canadian National railroad embankment.

The city had identified a longer runway as a priority for decades, but a 2005 Congressional mandate urging airports to be in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration rules for Runway Safety Areas expedited the process.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, helped secure $57.8 million in federal funds, with a state and local match provided by the formation of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

Visclosky said that the shorter runway limited the airport's options.

"It puts the airport at competitive disadvantage in aviation areas — whether it be commercial, whether it be charter, whether it be freight, whether it be general aviation," VIsclosky said. "Very wisely the city decided to do a runway extension to put as many lines in the water and to bring jobs to Gary and jobs to Northwest Indiana."

Originally the FAA set the deadline for the project's completion for 2015, but the agency became frustrated with the lack of progress and moved it up to December 2013. After some back and forth, the deadline was moved to August 2015.

"I was told and I was confident it would have been under way right now," Gary Jet Center owner Wil Davis said in 2011. "I felt 2009 and 2008 we would have had it going. What happened was direction was lost and when direction was lost it wasn't focused anymore."

Agreements with the Canadian National, CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads were said to be in place when Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-WIlson took office, but she quickly figured out that things weren't progressing as they should have been.

"When we came in, the project had started in 2007 and we were under the impression that all of these things were done," Freeman-Wilson said. "People weren't telling us that they weren't done, and that's when the truth started to come out."

Freeman-WIlson said part of the challenge was getting the railroads to make the negotiations a priority.

"I understand that they are huge corporations with a lot on their plates," Freeman-Wilson said. "The person who really helped and used his convening power to get everyone to meetings in Washington was really the presence of (U.S.) Sen. Joe Donnelly(D-Ind.). He said that this is important to the city of Gary and we need to make this a priority.

"It was like going to school with your big brother. He said 'this is my sister.' It changed their whole willingness to move on the project."

B.R. Lane, who is now superintendent of the Illinois Lottery, was the mayor's chief of staff, but came on board as airport director in October 2013 to shepherd the project home.

"We discovered that there hadn't been finalized agreements with Norfolk Southern, CSX, and CN, which was the most important because they needed to move on the new alignment for a piece of pavement for the runway to be put in place," Lane said. "We were able to get a sense of what was giving them the most concern and we discovered this line most active in North America. It would have impacted all their operations, so it gave us context for their reticence."

Donnelly's office, in particular, coordinated weekly calls to work through logistical issues, Lane said.

"When we started, I knew nothing about railroads and neither did his staff, but by the time we concluded negotiations, we had that expertise," Lane said. "To be fair, there wasn't always agreement. Particularly, the railroads had to sort of leapfrog each other's tracks — CSX had abandon one line to allow CN to get on that line — so they had to share information as competitors while also protecting their intellectual property. So that was also challenging."

Donnelly had always hoped to see the project get done, but he got personally involved when Freeman-Wilson called him in late 2013.

"The mayor called and said 'Look, we're running out of time here and it's starting to get critical'," Donnelly said. "This project was too critical to not have happen. None of us were willing to accept it not occurring."

Representatives from the airport, railroads, INDOT and other entities met in Donnelly's office in early 2014 to determine what issues were holding up the project, then worked on what needed to be done before meeting in Gary later in the year.

"There was a real frank exchange of views, but one thing that wasn't acceptable is to not get it done," Donnelly said.

Freeman-Wilson said the fact that the project was being done on a contaminated site produced its own set of challenges, including getting permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Indiana Department of Environmental Management to clear out soil from a former landfill, prevent chemicals that could leech into ground water from underground storage tanks, and other issues.

The final phase of the project was delayed by several months when contamination was found in and around railroad embankment, which was located along the south side of the former Conservation Chemical Co. of Illinois Superfund site. Regulators required the area to be cleaned up, so navigational equipment could be relocated there.

"It was a project that required a lot of time and attention, and I don't think people truly realized magnitude," Freeman-Wilson said. "Everyone has referred to it as a runway expansion, but it was also a railroad movement, opening up of a contaminated site, and instrumentation had to be placed there."

The final agreements to allow the railroads to cut over to new tracks were signed in October 2014, and work on the project has proceeded fairly smoothly. Project crews are still tying up some loose ends on environmental remediation, fencing, lighting and other aspects, but on June 2, the last stretch of runway pavement was poured.

"That was a big day," said interim airport director and project manager Dan Vicari. "I was looking at the clay cap being put in place (atop contaminated soil) and someone reminded me to look over my shoulder because we just finished the runway."

With the runway project complete, Donnelly said the airport is well positioned to gain a piece of the freight market in the Chicago area.

"I think it's a game changer," Donnelly said. "Private businesses can come in, and there will be no place quicker for freight than Gary."

NWI Times: Gary Airport Officially Opens Expanded Runway (July 2015)

GARY | Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans delivered a powerful endorsement Friday of Gary/Chicago International Airport as the future of a potential rival airport at nearby Peotone, Ill., hangs in the balance.

Evans spoke Friday before 400 people at the grand opening of the Gary airport's expanded main runway.

"This is an incredible accomplishment that will have a long-lasting, positive impact on this region and, on behalf of Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel, I wish you the best," she said from a stage set up outside the B. Coleman Aviation hangar.

With Evans on the stage were U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Federal Aviation Administration head of airports Eduardo Angeles, and other local officials who contributed to the expansion effort.

The future of the state of Illinois' effort to build a south suburban airport at Peotone has been in doubt ever since Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner took office in January. His recent budget actions have heightened that doubt.

That proposed airport has long been seen not only as a rival to Gary, but as a rival to O'Hare International and Midway airports as well.

Evans, recently appointed in Chicago to head the city's Department of Aviation, said Gary has the capability to relieve O'Hare International and Midway of general aviation and certain cargo operations.

Evans said Chicago's aviation department wants to see a return on its multimillion-dollar investment in Gary in comments after the speeches were done.

"It's a significant investment, and we will not walk away from this investment," she said.

As for the planned south suburban airport, she said she had not been able to fully study the issue yet, but she doesn't want to see efforts that might be duplicative.

"We've made a commitment here and we intend to leverage the investment we've already made in this airport, and we don't see the need to duplicate that in the future," Evans said. 

The Gary/Chicago International Airport runway was expanded to 8,900 feet from 7,000 feet, allowing it to handle larger, heavier planes. The runway now also has 1,000-foot safety areas at either end as mandated by the FAA.

Some 28 local contractors and nearly every crafts union did work at one time or another on the massive project.

"From a labor perspective, we are very happy to get this done," said Dan Murchek, president of the Northwest Indiana Federation of Labor. "This opens the door and the potential for some good-paying jobs down the road."

The largest financial contributors to the project were the FAA with an investment of almost $60 million and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority at $50 million.

Freeman-Wilson asked all contributors to the project to stand up -- including public officials, contractors, airport tenants, city of Gary employees and others when her turn came during the swift succession of speakers.

"Everyone wanted to get this done because they realized how important this is to the citizens of Gary and the citizens of Northwest Indiana," Freeman-Wilson said.

The expanded runway opened for business at 6 a.m. on June 25. That day marked the welcome end of a nine-year saga of delays and cost overruns.

The project was started in 2006 but only proceeded by fits and starts until about two years ago. It had an estimated cost of $90 million in 2006 that swelled to an actual cost of $174 million by the project's end.

Gary and region officials hope the opening of the expanded runway marks the beginning of a new era for Gary, as they craft other economic development projects such as a nearby Buffington Harbor industrial park.

The airport is now operated by a private company, AvPorts, and Virginia-based Aviation Facilities Co. Inc., known as AFCO, has a 40-year contract to develop the airport. The Gary Airport Authority remains its owner.

NWI Times: US Customs facility hailed as business generator for Gary airport (August 2018)

By: Andrew Steele 

GARY — The Gary/Chicago International Airport is set to become truly international with the completion of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility that will allow flights from anywhere in the world to land in Gary.

The airport held a ceremonial opening Thursday attended by more than 100 officials and business people. The facility will open to business in coming weeks after CBP installs the information technology required to run it.

Airport Executive Director Duane Hayden thanked current and previous airport board members and administrators for their work bringing the facility to Gary.

"It's great to see their vision and hard work come to fruition today," he said.

Airport Authority Chairman Timothy Fesko called the customs facility "an incredible opportunity to continue the growth we've experienced."

Officials including Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, said the customs facility will build on recent expansion at the airport, beginning with the runway extension completed in 2015.

Freeman-Wilson said private construction projects by tenants like fixed-base operators Gary Jet Center and B. Coleman Aviation is confirmation of the work the airport has done in recent years.  

"To me, that supports our assertion that the airport is in fact growing and taking off," she said. 

Donnelly, who assisted the airport in achieving the movement of freight railroad tracks to make the runway extension possible, noted the "Welcome to the United States" sign in the customs facility's foyer.

"I thought, this really is a customs facility that's going to change everything," he said. "If there's an easy way to get to downtown Chicago, it's Gary, Indiana."

The customs facility can serve general aviation flights. The fixed-base operators said Gary's easy access to Chicago should draw some of those international business and private flights.

John Girzadas, president of B. Coleman Aviation, said Midway Airport handles about 600 general aviation international flights a year.

"We're hoping to catch a percentage of that," he said. "The option of landing here is huge."

Gary Jet Center President Lynn Eplawy noted that there are 19 airports within 40 nautical miles of downtown Chicago. 

"It's obvious the landscape for aviation business here in the Chicago area is competitive," she said.

While the airport and its tenants promote its advantages, she said, "for the last 17 years, there's been a box we were unable to check," referring to the lack of customs service since 2001.

"But not today," she said. "Today we checked the box — 'international airport' means we have customs." 

The customs facility is in a building just west of the airport terminal that also houses the firefighting and rescue crews and equipment. Gary-based Lee Companies managed the $1.2 million project to renovate the building.

The facility will be managed from the Customs and Border Protection's Chicago field office, led by Area Port Director Matthew Davies.

Davies said the Gary facility will be staffed on an as needed basis by Chicago area officers.

"This is a positive step forward for the airport and the broader community," he said., "and CBP is ready to do our part to simultaneously support border security and economic prosperity."

Post-Tribune: $1.5 million customs facility at Gary airport 'game changing;' $2.5 million corporate hangar planned (August 2018)

By: Carole Carlson

One jet landed and another took off Wednesday as speakers gathered on a dais to open the Gary/Chicago International Airport’s $1.5 million U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, took note. So did Tim Fesko, chairman of the Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority.

 “That’s the sound of success,” Fesko said of the planes.

“This is a historic moment because we are adding success upon success,” said Donnelly.

The new customs building sits just west of the Gary Jet Center, one of two fixed-base operators at the airport that have increased their capital investments as the airport expands. Lee Companies, of Gary, completed the renovations.

“We have a lot of momentum on our back,” said Fesko. “Customs represents the next step and the potential for game changing.”

Fesko said the customs facility, that will be operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, represents a new market.

Airport Executive Director Duane Hayden said since the airport completed its runway expansion from 7,000 to 8,859 feet in 2015, operations increased 15 percent.

Meanwhile, the Gary Jet Center opened a new $5 million LEED-certified hangar and a $3 million terminal. B. Coleman Aviation, the other fixed-base operator, opened a $9 million terminal and a $5 million hangar. It’s planning to build four more hangars by 2020.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, speaks during the grand opening of the Gary-Chicago International Airport's Customs and Border Patrol facility on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018. (Kyle Telechan / Post-Tribune)

The Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority plans to add a $2.5 million corporate hangar to house tenants like Sage-Popovich Inc., and others, said Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

Lynn Eplawy, president of the Gary Jet Center, said her business has waited years for the customs facility.

“This is the last box we couldn’t check — international.”

Offering the ability for passengers to clear customs in Gary instead of another airport, should make a difference, said Eplawy who said there are 19 airports within 40 nautical miles of Chicago. “The landscape is competitive. We work hard to tell our story.”

John Girzadas, president of B. Coleman Aviation, said the customs facility will steer more air traffic to Gary. “The Gary/Chicago International Airport is becoming the business airport of choice,” he said.

Freeman-Wilson said the new customs facility is evidence the airport is growing, one of the city’s key priorities. “But we also want to offer opportunities for youngsters and create somewhere for them to come back to and work.”