FAA rules push back airport runway extension

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 3, 2014

A 500-foot runway extension at Rowan County Airport is not as close on the horizon as previously thought.
In March, Rowan County Airport Director Thad Howell received a letter from Bobby Walston, the state’s director of aviation, detailing the requirement of “additional planning studies” before beginning the project.
Orders to complete the new fleet mix evaluation, accompanied by another development plan and obstruction survey, came down from the N.C. Department of Transportation’s aviation division as well as the Federal Aviation Administration.
The additional requirements ultimately push construction of the runway extension nine months to a year in the future.
Airport officials said the new measures are a result of the airport’s switch from a Federal Aviation Administration district office in Atlanta to one in Memphis.
“We switched district offices. We were originally in Atlanta for the last several years. We moved to Memphis, and Memphis’ interpretation of the way that these projects progress is different,” Howell said. “They asked for some additional planning items that we’re looking at – runway safety area, configurations, things like that.”
As chairman of the county’s airport advisory board, Greg Edds said the interruption is a result of a change in funding models.
“We’re in the middle of the game, and all the rules have changed,” Edds said. “We were switched from the Atlanta district to Memphis, so now we have a whole set of new eyes that are on this.”
The letter indicated the airport needs to formulate an airport layout plan update, detailing a runway safety area determination, fleet mix evaluation and development plan for the proposed runway design code.
The fleet mix evaluation should identify annual aircraft traffic counts based on reference code.
The airport also must perform a “geographic information system obstruction survey.”
The survey should evaluate obstructions based on the future ends of the runway.
“After those steps are completed, a new environmental assessment for the future development would be expected prior to beginning design and construction,” Walston wrote.
Pending completion of the studies, the airport will have the “necessary data to compete for state and federal funds under the federal Airport Improvement Program.”
Craig Pierce, vice-chair of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, said the recent snag in the timeline for building the runway extension is a Federal Aviation Administration issue as opposed to a state issue.
Pierce also serves as the commissioner liaison for the airport advisory board.
“When I saw the letter, I was kind of confused because now they are wanting an updated environmental plan. I thought we already had that checked off,” Pierce said. “Evidently, their requirements for environmental is not the same as NCDOT. That is why the timeframe is so long — because it requires additional testing.”
The letter “was like a curveball out of left field,” Pierce said.
“We thought we were right on track, and here they drop all these additional requirements on us,” Pierce said.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s new transportation funding model is making it harder for entities like the Rowan County Airport to get the necessary funding for projects.
The state’s 58 airports are in a group competing for dollars with bike paths and greenways, Pierce said.
The amount, which is 4 percent of the transportation department’s budget, comes out to about $16 million Pierce said.
“That has to be spread out across 58 airports as well as all these other specialty projects. (McCrory’s) new formula for funding has really hurt us. We really used to be competing for the whole pie. Taking $10 million out of a $150 million budget is not nearly as hard to do, but when you’re asking for the lion’s share of $16 million, it really makes it tough for us to be able to get the funding from the state.”
As commissioner liaison, Pierce urged members of the airport advisory board to get a recommendation together regarding their next airport project — more T-hangars.
Board members need to present to commissioners the cost of building those hangars soon since the county’s elected officials are starting to delve into the budget process.
“We are well aware that we’ve got not only no more capacity, but there is actually a waiting list,” Pierce said. “That is like being in a restaurant with people standing at the door wanting to sit down.”
The need for more space at the airport has been expressed several times, Pierce said.
Pierce said he is beginning to wonder if the county is not shutting the doors by not having additional capacity.
At least 15 customers are on the waiting list, airport officials said.
“We would need some data such as what the configurations are, cost figures, location and a business plan as far as revenues expected from those hangars so we can see how much revenue can be generated versus what it would be (with) capital outlay,” Pierce said. “Right now is when we need that information.”
Pierce pressed Howell on whether the county de-annexing the airport and lowering the tax rate from 80 cents to 62 cents has generated more outside interest in the airport.
“I’ve been here almost six years, and I always had a handful of T-hangars — up until about last April. That’s when people stopped leaving, and we have people staying. Nobody is moving,” Howell said. “In the last year, we may have had one person sell an airplane out of the enclosed T-hangars, which are the most popular. The list has just continued to grow over the last year.”
When Howell talks with potential customers asking about hangar space, he said the airport’s low tax rate is a top issue in discussions.
Pierce summed up Howell’s responses.
“It would be fair to say that the de-annexation has given us an economic boost,” Pierce said.