Engineering firm: Airport runway extension will cost $24 million

Published 12:10 am Saturday, September 19, 2015

If Rowan County wants to lengthen its airport runway, it’ll have to shell out more than double the amount previously projected, according to estimates by engineering firm Talbert, Bright and Ellington.

In a presentation to the Rowan County Airport Board on Friday, the engineering firm said a 500-foot extension of the runway would cost about $24 million. During the meeting, county commissioners in attendance and members of the board admitted the price was significantly higher than previously projected. County Commissioner Craig Pierce said previous projections hovered around $10 million.

Rowan County has already submitted the runway extension to the state with the $10 million estimate.

The cost overage likely means an extension from the current 5,500-feet runway to 6,00 feet is three to four years away, Pierce said.

Plans prepared by Talbert, Bright and Ellington showed the extension planned for north of the current facility, toward Grants Creek and Rowan Mill Road. The other option — going South toward Airport Road — would be even more expensive than the price that shocked commissioners, according to Talbert, Bright and Ellington representative Judy Elder.

A southbound extension would require a relocation of Airport Road and cleanup of a contaminated site in addition to construction costs. Board members and attendees commented that the $24 million is the only option because of added costs associated with the southbound extension.

On the North end of the Rowan County Airport, the landscape slopes sharply downward. As a result, structural fill — needed to level the landscape — is the most significant portion of the extension costs.

As a cost saving measure, county commissioners had previously arranged a tentative agreement with the Department of Transportation to use leftover material from Interstate 85’s expansion as structural fill. It’s been a significant amount of time since those discussions occurred, Pierce said. The Department of Transportation also recently transitioned from former Secretary Tony Tata to current Secretary Nick Tennyson.

The amount of time and administrative shakeup raises questions about whether that agreement would be honored, Pierce said.

During the meeting, County Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said he and other county officials also approached Duke Energy about using a portion of the coal ash sitting in Buck Steam Station’s basins as structural fill for the airport. It wouldn’t adequately compact into the right sort of structural fill for Rowan County’s runway, Elder said.

It wasn’t all bad news. During the presentation, Elder also spoke about the airport’s classification. Currently, the facility is classified as a B-2 airport. A master plan drafted in the 2000s, however, had Rowan County eventually rising to a C-2 — a higher classification requiring more significant safety areas. Elder said Talbert, Bright and Ellington’s work projected Rowan remaining at the lower classification.

Edds and Pierce verbally wondered whether the addition of aircraft charter company Strategic Moves, with its larger corporate jets, would contribute to an upgrade in its classification.

Pierce and Airport Director Thad Howell said the larger planes could make a better case for an extension. However, it was unclear during the meeting that Strategic Moves would, with certainty, mean an upgrade.

Funding is undoubtedly the most significant question.

Pierce said the airport runway extension would consume much of the available state funds allotted for all airport work per year. As a result, Pierce and Howell said the extension would likely be paid through a combination of state, federal and local funds. The funds would be given to Rowan County over multiple budget years, they said.

Because of the airport runway extension’s sticker shock, Pierce pushed the board to focus instead on a $3 million to $5 million crowning and grooving project that would improve the condition of the current runway. He also suggested the airport renovate its pilot lounge.

Friday’s presentation was a result of a reclassification that recently occurred for the Rowan County Airport. It was moved at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Memphis office.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.