Stalled airport expansion may get back in gear

Times (Munster, IN), 2014-08-26

Aug. 26 -- Gary airport officials appear confident they may finally be close to solving the railroad riddle that has bedeviled their $174.1 million runway expansion project for years.

Although previous airport boards claimed to have arrived at the same junction, the airport authority Monday presented evidence Canadian National Railway's tracks could be out of the way as early as November and the runway expansion allowed to proceed.

"Obviously this is great news to hear," said airport authority member Denise Dillard . "When we came on this board we were like deer in the headlights on all these railroad issues."

Canadian National trains run on an embankment that is just 130 feet from the end of the airport's main runway, which is being expanded to 8,900 feet. In June 2013 , a new track route was completed for the railroad that loops around the end of the 8,900-foot runway's footprint.

But those new tracks, paid for with $28.7 million in airport money, have sat unused ever since. Canadian National would not move its trains until federal approvals and other agreements could be struck to permanently remove an unused crossing with the Fort Wayne rail line.

Lawyer Allison Bergman told the airport authority Monday that the federal Surface Transportation Board has now approved two key railroad requests which will ultimately result in the abandonment of a portion of the Fort Wayne line.

The authority then voted 4-0 to establish an escrow fund of $22.8 million that will be used to pay for a reroute of the Fort Wayne line and combine a portion of it with Norfolk Southern railroad's Gary line.

The $22.8 million has been raised through a combination of airport funds, federal highway funds and a grant from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority .

On another 4-0 vote the authority also approved the appointment of Delbert Brown as airport manager.

Brown will be an employee of AvPorts, the Gary airport's private operator. However, AvPorts is required to seek authority approval for the appointment under its contract with the authority.

AvPorts CEO Ozzie Moore made the pitch for Brown's hiring to the authority board. He offered an upfront explanation of a 2010 audit that raised questions about contracts and accounting procedures at Detroit City Airport , where Brown was airport administrator. That audit sparked Brown's resignation, according to Detroit -area media reports.

Moore said that audit revealed only that a number of procedural accounting practices were not implemented and there was ultimately no financial implications. He also stressed Detroit City Airport was badly underfunded due to Detroit's budget cuts.

Several board members said Moore's presentation gave them the confidence needed to approve the hire, with board Chairman James Cooper saying he had researched the audit report itself.

Brown already guided the airport through its role in the Chicago Air and Water Show a week-and-a-half ago, as he was hired on an interim basis on Aug. 11 . His immediate goals are to thoroughly evaluate airport operations and implement needed improvements through training and better accountability, he said.

"It's not one size fits all," Brown said. "Every airport is different and has different needs and the communities have different needs as well."


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