Gary/Chicago International Airport's $166 million expansion project is entering a critical phase, with some projects racing to completion so others can get started in time to meet a Federal Aviation Administration deadline.
Off the beaten path and out of public view, some projects are near wrapping up while others are about to get started, airport expansion program manager Scott Wheeler told reporters on a tour of the expansion site Tuesday.
"We've gotten this all 4 feet up out of the muck," Wheeler said standing in an area of about 10 acres pressed as flat as a pancake just out of view of Cline Avenue. "We are doing things. They're just not exciting things like building a skyscraper where it jumps right out at you."
The flat-as-a-pancake area where Wheeler was standing was once a swamp. It is now cleared, filled and ready to be raised about 4 feet to 6 feet more so concrete can be poured for the bulk of the main runway extension. That portion of the runway extension could be complete by early next year.
But pouring concrete for the last stretch of runway will have to wait until the embankment that carries Canadian National trains immediately west of the current runway can be taken down. But that can't happen until new railroad tracks being built along Cline Avenue for Canadian National are ready to use next summer, Wheeler said.
Then Canadian National trains that currently now travel on the embankment will be shifted over to the new tracks. Then the embankment will be taken down and the last stretch of the runway extension can be built. The runway will be 8,900 feet long, with required safety zones at both ends, when all the work is done.
As the embankment comes down, the airport will have to be closed to large aircraft. That will probably take place in late summer or early fall 2013, Airport Director Steve Landry said. The airport is already talking with Allegiant and other airport customers about the closures, Landry said.
Another closure that will have to be finely timed is closing Chicago Avenue as a through road from Cline Avenue to Airport Road. But that portion of Chicago Avenue can't be closed until at least some lanes are open on the new $11.56 million vehicle overpass being built on Airport Road, Landry said.
Some lanes on that bridge, now just a collection of rising abutments and piles, could open by late fall, Landry said. Only then can new Canadian National tracks be laid across Chicago Avenue and just north of Chicago Avenue.
On Tuesday, reporters were taken to a $6.4 million railroad bridge project north of the airport, where Canadian National trains will pass over Norfolk Southern tracks. That bridge project makes apparent the complexity of the expansion project.
New, temporary tracks had to be built there for Norfolk Southern so its trains could keep running as the bridge is built. A Canadian National signalman keeps a close eye on where the railroad's lumbering trains pass by construction workers. Within site of both those rail lines, CSX railroad also operates trains on one of its main lines.