GARY, Indiana — The completion of an 8,900-foot runway has given Gary/Chicago International Airport the capability to relieve Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports of some cargo and general aviation operations and possibly provide a long sought economic catalyst for the region, officials say.
The $174 million expansion, which added 1,900 feet to the existing 7,000-foot runway, officially opened on June 25 but a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Friday, drawing local, regional and federal officials to celebrate the completion of a project that broke ground in 2007.
The expanded runway will allow the airport to serve planes of all sizes and provide longer half-flight options for customers. Supporters of the project have long viewed it as a potential economic catalyst for the city of Gary and northwestern Indiana.
"This is a new day for the city of Gary, with additional great jobs, additional opportunity," U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat, told a crowd of about 400 people.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said political leaders, aviation professionals and engineers all looked forward to its completion because it would provide an economic boost.
"Everyone wanted to get this done because they realized how important this is to the citizens of Gary and the citizens of northwest Indiana," Freeman-Wilson said.
Eduardo Angeles, associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said the project has received $58 million in federal funds since 2006 and that there will be "more to come, I'm sure."
"This runway results in a substantial increase in capacity in the Chicago area," Angeles said. "It will bring air activity and associated economic development to an economically stressed area."
The runway completion comes as the future of the state of Illinois' effort to build a Chicago south suburban airport at Peotone has been placed in doubt after Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner took office in January. That proposed airport has long been seen not only as a rival to Gary, but also to O'Hare and Midway.
Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said her department wants to see a return on a multimillion-dollar investment it has made in the Gary airport.
"It's a significant investment, and we will not walk away from this investment," Evans said.
The project grew from a congressional mandate requiring longer safety areas along runways. The runway now also has 1,000-foot safety areas at either end as mandated by the FAA.
The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority provided $50 million in funding.
Interim airport director and project manager Dan Vicari said the project wasn't simply about paving a runway, but it meant relocating the tracks of three railroads, moving an electrical substation and petroleum tanks, mitigating industrial pollution at a former Superfund site, and other infrastructure projects.
"We encountered obstacle after obstacle, but our team got past it," Vicari said.