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By Staff | Mar 21, 2010

Kathy Bailey

The Blue Earth City Council learned the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has turned down funding a project to extend the runway at the city’s airport.

The news came during a report from Ron Roetzel of Bolton and Menk Engineers, the firm which has been working on the $6.1 million proposal.

The total project was to include expanding the current 3,400-foot runway to 4,600 feet, as well as building a new parallel taxiway and concrete apron area.

Roetzel told the council the FAA would still consider a project to resurface the current runway, as well as building a taxiway and apron area.

Several council members asked about the costs for this scaled back project, but Roetzel says he was unsure.

“We will have to modify the plans and estimates,” he says. “Now you need to tell us what project you’d like to have.”

The council decided to send the entire matter back to the Airport Commission to work out a new plan.

The FAA’s reason for turning down the project had to do with a smaller number of operations (take-offs and landings) in a recently submitted survey.

Roetzel says a survey from 2006 showed an adequate number of operations at the airport to justify the expansion.

However, several citizens and council members, including John Huisman and Les Wiborg, questioned the numbers,calling them “inflated.”

The FAA requires at least 500 operations (or 250 flights) per year in order to justify this size project, Roetzel told the council. Plus, the need for a longer runway is based on larger planes and small jets landing there.

The 2006 survey showed an estimated 470 operations for that year, and 670 in 2011. These figures are for larger planes and do not include crop sprayers, etc.

However, the 2010 survey came up with just 26 larger plane operations.

“It has a lot to do with the economy,” Roetzel says. “Some companies’ plans have changed due to the economy.”

One business, Bevcomm, which had projected 300 operations by 2011 on the first survey, had zero listed for 2009 and 150 projected for 2015 on the new survey.

Another expected large airport user, Fagen, Inc., had 250 operations listed as projected for 2011 on the old survey, but now has zero on the new survey. Roetzel says it was due to the completion of area ethanol plants so the construction company no longer flies into the area.

The airport expansion project has been in the formal planning stages since 2005, although it was first proposed nine years ago.

The FAA had originally backed the project, and would have paid for 95 percent of the runway extension.

The city’s share was expected to be $307,000, which would have been paid through sale of a bond.

The City Council had a split vote, 4-3, last October, to proceed with the project. Councilmen Dick Maher, Glenn Gaylord and Rick Scholtes, along with Mayor Rob Hammond voted yes, while Councilmen Huisman, Wiborg and Dan Brod had voted no.

In January, three bids for the project were all rejected when the lowest one was $1.3 million over the engineer’s estimate for the project.

Actual construction costs were expected to be $5.347 million, but the low bid was $6.638 million.

Councilmen Huisman and Wiborg went to the FAA at that time, and expressed their concerns that the project was being based on inflated usage numbers.

The FAA agreed, and asked the city to furnish a new application with a new survey of potential usage numbers.

Bolton and Menk completed the survey and application on March 9, and the FAA gave their answer in a letter dated March 11.

The letter, from Sandra DePottey of the FAA office in Minneapolis, states:

“We have determined that a runway extension is not justified at this time. We find that this is because of a lack of forecasted demand to justify additional runway length due to changing economic conditions.

“A project to reconstruct the current 3,400 foot runway, the existing taxiways and apron, and construction of a full parallel taxiway can continue to be processed for 2010 funding.

Roetzel says the scaled back plan could still be a two year project, so that the taxiway could be used as a runway while the actual runway is resurfaced one year, and the runway would be open while the taxiway is constructed,

“This would keep the airport open during all phases of construction,” he says.