The stalled Gary/Chicago International Airport runway expansion could get a renewed push as a new private operator takes over at the the airport.
Officials from Aviation Facilities Co. Inc. are seeking to assure nervous tenants and others the $166 million expansion will be a top priority as their AvPorts subsidiary takes over operations.
AFCO Executive Vice President Steve Forrer said the company will put its own engineers and staff on the job, as well as former CenterPoint Properties CEO Michael Mullen.
"Michael Mullen is extremely conversant with what's going on with the railroads and expects to be integrally involved in getting the berm removed and all that behind us so the runway can be completed," Forrer said.
The berm is a railroad embankment that carries Canadian National trains to Kirk Yard. The berm blocks the planned expansion of the main runway to 8,900 feet. Final agreements on track reroutes must be worked out before it can come down.
Mullen during his tenure at CenterPoint oversaw the establishment of major railroad intermodal freight facilities, including the CenterPoint Intermodal Center, in Elwood, Ill.
"I think its an exciting opportunity," Mullen said. "We have a world class team here. And I think we can make something happen."
Forrer spoke at a Gary Airport Authority meeting last week after hearing testimony from Gary Jet Center Managing Partner Lynn Eplawy. She said expanding the runway is critical.
"The priority needs to be that runway expansion and then continuing to develop it," Eplawy said.
After hearing from Eplawy and others, the Airport Authority voted 4-0 to approve a 40-year contract for real estate development with AFCO and another for airport management with AvPorts.
The airport runway expansion project has been underway since 2006 and has been subject to multiple delays.
The Federal Aviation Administration has told the airport that if the expansion project is not completed, its current runway will be shortened by 1,000 feet, because it lacks adequate safety areas. That would make the runway unusable for most passenger airliners and many corporate business jets.
Forrer said his company will be respectful of all current contracts between the Airport Authority and consultants. At the same time, AvPorts will undertake a three-month vetting of all existing contracts with consultants, he said.
The largest consulting contract at the airport is held by AECOM Technologies Inc., of Los Angeles, for overseeing the expansion project. AECOM was hired in summer 2010 to complete the project by the end of last year for $2.8 million. Since then, successive airport authorities have added $1.6 million more in contracts for AECOM.
The airport management agreement signed last week with AvPorts contains only a few references to the company's role in the expansion project.
One item lists all the management activities AvPorts will provide includes assistance with the relocation of the railroad lines.
Another part of the contract states any assistance AvPorts provides for the runway expansion can be considered an additional service, allowing AvPorts to charge a fee.