The Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority voted 4-0 Friday morning to close a land deal with Canadian National Railway that will allow the long-stalled airport runway expansion to proceed.
"This is just a major, major milestone that has been long awaited by this airport board," said authority member Alesia Pritchett just after the vote.
The Gary airport runway expansion has proceeded by fits and starts since 2006. It has an estimated price tag of $174.1 million.
The airport has been negotiating for years with Canadian National and other railways to move active rail tracks that sit on an embankment just 130 feet from the northwest end of its main runway. Those tracks and the embankment have to be removed to allow the airport to expand the runway by 1,900 feet so it can handle large passenger and cargo planes.
"The berm is coming down," said Airport Authority Vice President James Cooper.
That could happen in less than a month. Canadian National has 24 days to remove its tracks before the airport authority moves into full possession of the embankment, lawyer Allison Bergman told the board.
Last year, new tracks were built for Canadian National that will allow it to move its trains off the embankment. The new track route loops around the footprint of the expanded runway. The airport paid the $28.7 million bill to build those tracks.
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The airport expansion may take another giant leap forward Monday, when the authority is scheduled to vote on a resolution approving borrowing money to pay for the final expansion projects. During the summer, the authority discussed borrowing up to $35 million for that purpose.
The airport authority plans to hold a news conference at the airport after its meeting on Monday, touting the railroad move and laying out future plans for the expansion.
The last hurdle to completing the expansion is achieving an agreement with environmental agencies on how to handle the significant soil and groundwater pollution in the runway expansion area. Testing will begin Monday for possible pollution under the embankment.
Canadian National will begin the process of "cutting-over" from its current active tracks to the new tracks at 6 a.m. Monday and should finish by Tuesday afternoon, said Canadian National spokesman Patrick Waldron. Access to the railroad's Kirk Yard north of the airport will be shut down for about 20 hours.
Normally, about 30 trains per day move in and out of the rail yard via the embankment at the end of the airport runway. On Monday, people may see trains parked for longer than usual on tracks in local communities, but the railroad does not anticipate rail crossings at streets will be blocked, Waldron said.
The airport authority also took action on several other items Friday associated with the deal. In addition, a deed was being filed at the Lake County Recorder's office Friday that will give the airport ownership of an abandoned rail line north of the airport, Bergman told the board.
That area could be used someday to expand the airport's crosswind runway.