January 12, 2001

Chicago Sun-Times

Lewis airport after funding for project

Seeks new apron in anticipation of crowds

Friday, January 12, 2001

By Rex Robinson
Staff Writer

Lewis University Airport in Romeoville is seeking $3 million from the Federal Aviation Administration to build a new, larger apron to park about 150 airplanes.

The apron is needed to accommodate the estimated 100 to 200 planes expected to fly into the region when NASCAR and other races come to the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet this summer, said airport director Chris Lawson.

Airport officials are also asking for FAA funding to set up a temporary control tower at Lewis for the NASCAR race weekend in July. The FAA is studying the cost of the tower, Lawson said.

The lack of airport parking could cause real problems for the facility, located west of Illinois 53 between Taylor and Renwick roads, because the current apron can park just 10 or so planes.

"We just have to fight for bringing these dollars into this community," Lawson said.

Airports from around the country compete for federal funds annually.

Lewis officials are working with U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Morris) to appeal to the FAA for the necessary money.

Officials in Weller's office say the Congressman is willing to help Lewis obtain the funds, but it could be an uphill battle. Lewis has already received $3.5 million in funding from the FAA for 2000.

The airport's chances of receiving the funds hinges on the FAA having excess funds on hand from other airport projects that will not come to fruition this year, said George Michas, chairman of the Joliet Port District, which owns the airport.

"It's kind of a long shot," Michas said. "But if another airport is not ready to take the money and use it, they can't just sit on it. If the (FAA) money is turned down, it becomes available for somebody else."

Ben Fallon, spokesman for Weller, said the FAA appears to be receptive to the idea of granting Lewis any excess funds that become available, but it will take the cooperation of state and local officials as well. The airport must obtain 5 percent of the project's funding from local sources, and another 5 percent from the state, Lawson said.

The airport has already passed one of those hurdles. The Joliet City Council has earmarked $150,000 from riverboat gambling taxes for the project.

And there is no guarantee that the local and state matches will help, Fallon said, because projects dealing with safety concerns and runway expansions have first priority, he said.

Lewis already has a request pending with the FAA for funding for a runway expansion. The airport is building a new east-west runway that will allow planes to land at Lewis in any weather conditions, Lawson said.

The new $18.5 million runway is under construction, but the airport needs about $10 million to finish it, he said. Crews are currently adding fill to build up the land for the new runway, and are doing drainage work.

If the airport obtains the necessary funding, the runway could be finished sometime in the next three to five years.

Unlike the new runway, the new apron, planned for the south side of the airport's new terminal building, is a more immediate need, airport officials said. About 15 to 20 pilots have already booked space with Lewis for the first race weekend on July 14-15.

If the airport does not receive the money needed, planes flying in for the NASCAR races will be directed to another airport, Lawson said.

That is already what the airport is doing with planes coming in for the Western Open at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club in Lemont.

But the new apron, which would be triple the size of Lewis' current apron, is needed for more than just race weekends, airport officials said.

Michas said the apron would not only bring more planes to Lewis, but also more people into the region to spend money at hotels, restaurants and other Will County businesses.

Fallon, Weller's spokesman, agreed.

"Lewis is a very important part of attracting business to Will County," Fallon said. "This project would hopefully act as a catalyst for economic development in Will County."

[Chicago ATC News]