March 23, 2001 Chicago Tribune

Tribune staff reporters
March 23, 2001

In a gambit that could thwart construction of an airport in Peotone, Mayor Richard Daley is putting the finishing touches on an ambitious plan to expand the little-used airfield in Gary into the region's third major passenger airport.

The proposed expansion, which soon will be presented to federal authorities, is the latest political payoff for Daley stemming from a controversial alliance he forged with Gary in 1995 to block Republicans in the Illinois legislature from interfering with Chicago's airports.

Since then, the city has sent a steady cavalcade of firefighting equipment, snowplows, consultants and dollars down the expressway to the renamed Gary-Chicago Airport, support that exceeded the original terms of the deal, according to records and interviews.

It has been a great deal for a blighted city such as Gary, which has collected enough equipment to fill a hangar--including surplus security fencing to protect the booty--and almost $9.3 million collected from passengers at O'Hare International and Midway Airports for capacity-enhancing improvements intended for those airports.

If the expansion is approved, Daley's investment could be considered a bargain. A third airport in Gary would set back efforts led by Illinois Republicans to build a new airfield near Peotone in eastern Will County--a project that Daley has tried to quash for a decade because the south suburban airport would be well outside the mayor's control.

"Why is Richie sending the [passenger facility charge] money to Gary?" asked Aaron Gellman, director of Northwestern University's Transportation Center. "If it prevents grand defections to another airport like a Peotone, preserving the integrity of O'Hare, this might represent a very good move."

Peotone backers contend the Gary airport proposal is a political ploy and an aviation pipe dream. The 51-year-old Gary airport cannot be expanded enough, they say, because of airspace conflicts with Midway and environmental problems requiring costly remedies. The problem is compounded by the pockets of fragile sand dunes and wetlands tucked amid the chemical waste dumps surrounding the airport property.

Supporters of a bigger and better Gary-Chicago Airport acknowledge the heavy-handed orchestration by Chicago officials, but say a reborn airport in Gary potentially could help ease--both short- and- long-term--the logjam of planes and passengers at Chicago's two main airports. They also contend the airport deal, which calls for longer runways and a new passenger terminal, represents the best hope of reviving a smokestack-shrouded city that until recently was known as the murder capital of the United States.

"We would probably be three to five years behind without Chicago's help," said Gary Mayor Scott King. "Yes, Mayor Daley is a sophisticated, in my view, pretty damn good politician, but so what if he is using Gary as a pawn against Peotone. My job is to maximize the advantage of our relationship for the benefit of my city."

Absent the impressive marquee at its entrance, the Gary-Chicago Airport could easily be missed amid the factories and warehouses clustered between Lake Michigan and the Indiana Toll Road. The terminal resembles an aging community center and the squat control tower seems better suited to directing crop-dusters than commercial jets.

On a recent Friday, one of the busiest travel days of the week at major airports, the Gary facility's parking lot was almost empty. Inside the terminal a handful of passengers idled between the food cart selling hot dogs and ice-cream bars and the one-lane (no line, no waiting) passenger security checkpoint.

There are just four commercial flights a day--to St. Louis, Orlando, Boston and Bangor, Maine--operated by Pan American Airways, though the schedule represents a breakthrough for an airport that had tried for decades to attract a carrier.

The expansion project is being directed by Paul Karas, a former Chicago public works commissioner hired last August as the airport's director. He came to the job with an impressive resume, having overseen the redevelopment of Kennedy International Airport in New York and airport projects from Hong Kong to Brazil.

Karas, who works out of a converted mobile-home trailer at the tiny airport, said he is convinced Gary offers a cheaper and faster solution to the Chicago-area's aviation woes--in large part because, unlike in Peotone, an airport already operates on the site.

"We've got the space. We've got the ground access. We've got the South Shore commuter rail. And we've got a lake where the alewives don't complain too much [about noise] when planes fly over," he said.

Major portions of the master plan have been forwarded to the Federal Aviation Administration, and officials say they are waiting for Daley to approve the formal presentation.

The Gary proposal could face roadblocks in Washington. The Peotone project was thwarted by Daley allies in the Clinton administration for eight years, but it now appears to be getting serious consideration from the Bush administration.

Gary's proponents trumpet the idea of restoring abandoned industrial brownfields to the tax rolls by expanding the airport, rather than bulldozing pristine farmland in Will County for a new airport that would only encourage further sprawl.

Gary officials also tout their airport's proximity to downtown Chicago via major expressways (about 40 minutes) and the South Shore commuter rail line (a 51-minute commute). They also note that Gary is a closer drive than O'Hare for 2.5 million people living in the Chicago area. Similarly, they said 1.1 million people live closer to Gary than to Midway.

The master plan proposes to lengthen the airport's two runways and increase the number of aircraft gates to boost capacity. Several miles of nearby railroad tracks would have to be relocated, along with some local roads that would have to be improved anyway.

The long-term goal would be to expand the airport to 1,700 acres from 700 acres and build a second major runway, a new passenger terminal and a parking garage, costing up to $750 million.

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Thomas Walker said Gary has the potential to be "something similar to Midway, and at a relatively modest cost (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text)." Walker said the existing main runway at Gary could be lengthened for about $60 million and that environmental cleanup costs are projected at $40 million to $50 million.

A starter airport in Peotone, by comparison, would cost about $600 million.

Federal airport construction funds would cover about 80 percent of construction costs at either airport with the remainder coming from airlines and state and local governments.

In 1995, Daley secretly negotiated a deal that created the airport authority with Gary, infuriating legislators in Springfield because it effectively created a legal moat around the airports and the goody bag of jobs and contracts that come with them.

The deal called for Chicago to give Gary a chunk of the more than $100 million in passenger facility charges collected each year at O'Hare and Midway. So far, the city has contributed about $1.75 million a year to the Gary-Chicago Airport, Karas said.

Karas said the value of the equipment that Chicago donated to Gary--including aircraft de-icers and communications radios--was minimal because the inventory was old and required extensive repairs. "Beggars can't be choosers," Karas said.

Gary has used the money from Chicago to build a new cargo building, add a de-icing station and spruce up its existing facilities.

Illinois transportation officials said the option of expanding Gary was evaluated and discarded by Indiana officials in the early 1990s. Studies showed environmental cleanup costs were too high and the airport, after the initial expansion, would run out of capacity in 10 to 15 years, making the expansion bid a poor long-term investment.

"Gary is a good airport for the small airport that it is," Illinois Transportation Secretary Kirk Brown said. "It can't be the future five-runway airport that we will need 30 to 50 years from now because the costs to do it would be double or triple of building Peotone, and we'd have to shut down Midway because of airspace compatibility problems."

The environmental questions will largely determine how much Gary can grow. Even the consulting engineers and politicians who are pushing the airport project acknowledge that decontaminating the soil and groundwater near the airport boundaries will be expensive, particularly under the most-ambitious scenario in which a second major runway would be built.

"I've got 400 pristine-looking acres over here, but you can probably fry an egg on it," Mayor King said, pointing to a location on an aerial map just west of the airport's boundary. The Illinois Department of Transportation commissioned a 1994 study that led to the selection of Peotone from six sites for a third regional airport. Those sites included a Lake Calumet location once favored by Daley.

"Lake Calumet and Gary were virtually tied for being the worst of the six," said Christine Cochrane, the state's project manager for the Peotone airport.

The initial expansion plan to extend the runways is feasible because the land in question has been environmentally degraded, said Paul Labus, who heads the Nature Conservancy's regional office in Whiting, Ind. But the construction of a second parallel runway would encroach on wetlands, prairie savannas and a swale-and-dune landscape that supports a variety of endangered animal and plant species, Labus said.

Sally Swanson, who manages the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's activities in northwest Indiana, said the EPA is working with the Gary airport and has committed money from the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program to purge dangerous materials from surrounding properties.

For all the environmental concerns, Gary's King remains upbeat.

"We've proven with Pan Am that people will come and they will get on the plane if it's where they want to go," he said. "What bugs the Peotone advocates more than anything is that we have a runway," King said, pausing for the punch line. "They have a cornfield."

[Chicago ATC News]