MERRILLVILLE – You know the saying that if it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all. I suspect Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and the Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority have that feeling right about now.
That’s because it was announced last week that completion of a $166-million expansion project was being delayed – again. Rather than being ready at the end of this year, it now is estimated that the project, largely runway expansion, won’t be completed until September 2014 at the earliest.
Despite the delay, the Airport Authority will proceed with plans to attract a private investor willing to put up at least $100 million as part of a private/public partnership. The expansion project involves railroad relocation and remediation of polluted soil and groundwater to allow for runway expansion.
The irony is that the very thing that led to Northwest Indiana becoming an industrial giant is now blocking the area’s future. The land around the airport is among the most polluted in the country. And that obviously didn’t happen overnight.
The Airport Authority, which has been both functional and dysfunctional over the years, has known from the beginning that the level of pollution was extraordinary. Unfortunately, the authority has too often been slow in acting over the years.
For instance, the authority foolishly asked the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to allow it to permanently cap a pile of contaminated soil that was removed and dumped along the south edge of the airport. IDEM turned down the request, so the work continues and the completion is delayed.
Through it all, Freeman-Wilson, who has been in office for just a year and a half, remains undaunted. She and most of the movers and shakers in Northwest Indiana know the growth of the airport is the key for the future of Gary and all of the area.
With the runway expansion, Gary will have greater capability than Midway Airport in Chicago. And with the expansion, there seemingly will be less chance for the construction of an airport in Peotone west of Gary in Illinois.
U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville, has brought the most money into the $166-million expansion project. The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority has been another leading contributor. And former Gov. Mitch Daniels, shortly after his first inauguration, said airport expansion was the eye to the future of Northwest Indiana.
There is one thing for certain at this point. The Airport Authority must make certain that there is not another delay beyond September 2014. There is a lot riding on it, and if the new deadline isn’t met, it will become clear as to why Gov. Mike Pence was pushing for more control of the airport authority.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. He is a columnist for The Times of Northwest Indiana.