GARY | A groundbreaking for the $153 million expansion of the Gary/Chicago International Airport on Wednesday had almost 300 attendees celebrating and breathing a sigh of relief that the long-delayed project is finally taking off.
"I would be willing to make a bet that some people in this room thought this day would never come," said Leigh Morris, chairman of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. "But it's here. It's here. And what a joy it is to prove them wrong."
The groundbreaking crew, which actually consisted of Mayor Rudy Clay and about 20 others sticking shovels in a sand pile at an airport garage when storms threatened, came just weeks after railroads signed an agreement allowing the removal of tracks blocking runway expansion.
"Many other mayors and many other airport boards pushed this project, but we are the ones blessed to be actually doing it," Clay said 30 minutes later during a round of speeches in the airport terminal building.
The afternoon's events also included a groundbreaking for the Gary Jet Center's new $7.1 million headquarters hangar building, which may include the airport's first U.S. customs facility.
The Gary airport expansion kicked off in 2006 when the Federal Aviation Administration issued a letter of intent for $57.8 million to fund the project.
But negotiations with railroads over moving tracks at the end of the main runway dragged on for years with seemingly little progress.
Several railroads sent representatives Wednesday, with Canadian National's Patrick Waldron saying the railroad always has had a commitment to working with the airport on a solution to expanding its main runway.
A number of people at the event, including former Airport Director Paul Karas, who initiated the project a decade ago, said the FAA played a key role in getting the project back in gear.
Last year, the federal agency threatened to cut off funding if the project did not get moving. It also told the airport if runway safety areas were not added at the end of the main runway, it would shorten its approved length by 1,000 feet.
FAA Great Lakes region district manager James Keefer said the Gary airport was not singled out by his agency.
But he said the agency will remain zealous in enforcing Congress' mandate that all airport runways have adequate safety zones.
A number of speakers Wednesday expressed thanks to the city of Chicago for the $9.5 million it is putting into the Gary airport's expansion. But the key question of Chicago's continued support for the Gary airport was left unanswered at Wednesday's event.
New Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wrote to Clay, expressing regrets he could not attend. He sent Chicago Department of Aviation CFO Michael Zonsius in his place.
The Gary airport currently receives a $3.1 million slice of annual passenger fees collected at O'Hare and Midway airports under a compact agreement signed between the cities of Chicago and Gary in 1995. There has been concern about what may happen to that support as Emanuel struggles to close the city's budget deficit.
Zonsius referred all questions on Chicago's support for the Gary airport to the aviation department's media office, which later issued the following statement:
"The City of Chicago signed an agreement called the Gary compact. Nothing has changed regarding the agreement," it stated.
The largest project in the Gary airport's expansion is the extension of the main runway to 8,900 feet from its current 7,000 feet. That will enable the runway to handle most passenger airliners and larger cargo planes.
The new headquarters for the Gary Jet Center will include a 40,000-square-foot hangar and 6,000 square feet of office space.