Longer runway opens Monday
8,700-foot runway becomes reality after prolonged contentious debate over next step in airport development
It’s almost ready after more than a decade of various proposals, public hearings and even a lawsuit initiated by the City Council.
On Monday sometime around 10 p.m., after the last Norwegian Airlines flight, a crew armed with a power washer will position themselves at the existing end of Runway 5 and blast away the digit “5” that pilots use for reference. At about the same time, more than 1,500 feet away, a tarp will be removed to reveal another number 5, signaling the new end to Green Airport’s primary runway.
With that, Green will have an 8,700-foot runway that will enhance its capability of enabling airlines to offer nonstop flights across the country and the Atlantic. It would seem the longer runway is coming just in time, as international flights to the Azores, Cape Verde, Ireland, Scotland and Norway have stepped up. Or more likely the case, the prospect of a longer runway has helped Rhode Island Airport Corporation President and CEO Iftikhar Ahmad convince carriers to use Green.
Either way, completion of the extension slightly ahead of schedule and below budget is exciting for those who have overseen the project.
“Paving of a 40-foot-wide shoulder is all we have to do,” Paul McDonough, RIAC project director and vice president of engineering said Monday.
Well, actually, the paving was the major item. There was also some painting of lines and shifting of lights, but essentially extension of the runway that was spawned in controversy is now hours away from being reality.
When first proposed, runway proposals for Green started with two parallel 10,000-foot runways to a proposal to extend the primary runway to 9,350 feet with additions at both ends. That plan included the extension of Route 37 to Warwick Avenue as an east-west replacement to Airport Road and a tunnel for Main Avenue.
Former RIAC President and CEO Kevin Dillon came up with the current more modest extension, but that was hardly welcomed with open arms by the community. The city administration argued nothing would be gained by building an 8,700-foot runway when an 8,500-foot runway could achieve the same goal. Then there were issues over where to relocate Winslow Park playing fields, the relocation of Main Avenue and the impact on homes and businesses. The City Council brought suit to stop the plan, which it dropped after reaching a memorandum of understanding with RIAC.
That contentious beginning faded with the downturn of the economy and accompanying loss in airport activity. In the boom year of 2005, 5.7 million passengers passed in and out of Green with 140,000 aircraft operations. Last year, total passengers numbered 3.6 million and there were 70,000 operations.
Today the emphasis is on growing Green and increasing service and destinations as a means of keeping and attracting businesses and providing Rhode Islanders with job opportunities. Ahmad has been successful in attracting discount fare airlines that will give Green 33 nonstop destinations – up from 17 – by this fall and a total of 500,000 additional airline seats in and out of Green.
Reached Wednesday, Dillon, who is executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, said he is “thrilled” to hear the extension is completed, although Green is a competitor to Bradley International Airport outside Hartford.
“It’s been a long road,” he said, crediting the RIAC staff and board with the accomplishment.
“When I look back on those days there was a great deal of contention,” he said. He also said when recruited for the job by the late Gov. Bruce Sundlun there were “plans all over the place” to expand the airport. When he stepped into the job Dillon said the staff and the board took a realistic view of the airport’s infrastructure needs for the next level in its development.
“A lot of people contributed to that,” he said, “but it was really his [Sundlun’s] vision.”
Although instruments are in place, the extension will open on a visual use basis until the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aligns and tweaks all the systems, explains Gregory Fehrman, project engineer for C&S Companies, who is managing the runway project. Runway 5 is expected to be FAA certified for instrument landing on Dec. 7.
“We’re right there,” Fehrman says of the extension. He’s already ordered the cigars to celebrate.
Fehrman is especially complementary of Cardi Construction, the major contractor and airport operations that formed schedules so that the work could get done with minimal impact on flights and passengers.
“I don’t know of another contractor that could have done this. Rhode Island should be proud,” he said.
Fehrman said “big Paul [McDonough]…he really drags the train.” In the end, Fehrman said, “Without teamwork, we’re not there.”
A lot went into the $37.2 million extension, from 60,000 tons of asphalt to 23,000 feet of drainage pipes. But, also, a lot stayed on site. Fehrman said that 75 percent of materials that had to be removed, such as concrete stations for landing lights that were crushed, were recycled and used. He said 43 percent of construction and demolition waste that would have otherwise gone to the landfill was also reused.
Last August the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure recognized the runway extension project with the Envision Gold Award. The first award of its kind in Rhode Island took into consideration benefits to the local economy through improved assess and job creation; resource allocation including reduction of maintenance and energy usage and the resiliency of the runway systems to altered climate conditions.
RIAC spokeswoman and vice president of marketing Patti Goldstein called completion of the extension “a huge milestone” yesterday. She said a ceremony commemorating the extension is being planned at the airport for Sept. 18.