While still years from becoming a reality, plans for renovations of the eroding Manhattan Regional Airport runway have run into a potential snag over its width.
Airport Director Jesse Romo says though past communications with Federal Aviation Administration officials indicated they would be eligible to receive federal grants to help fund up to 90 percent of the runway costs at its current 150 foot width, just this month they received a letter stating they are only eligible for funding for a 100 foot wide runway. He says the standard of funding at that width hinges on an aircraft weighing more than 150,000 pounds traveling through the port more than 500 times per year, though Manhattan only sees such planes 150 to 200 times annually.
Romo says the FAA doesn’t take military numbers into account in civil projects, but reducing the runway size would limit service for military and Kansas State University Athletics charter planes. Even so, Romo says the standard is not completely set in stone.
“That’s something that we’re going to continue to debate with them as we move forward,” says Romo.
K-State Chief of Staff Linda Cook confirmed that Athletics charter planes would not be able to land at the airport with a skinnier runway, impacting football and basketball team travel which amounts for up to 30 flights per year. She added that visiting teams would also be forced out, and that they would likely choose to book hotels outside of Manhattan as well.
“So it does have a ripple effect in some of the other economic impact to the community,” says Cook.
Airport Advisory Board Chair Richard Jankovich noted it would impact the operations of companies like Heartland Aviation and Kansas Jet Center.
The 40-year-old runway surface has been eroding, now 20 years past its projected lifespan, and while not experiencing structural issues at this point its friction and drainage grooves are wearing away. Officials say this may result in sliding and thaw issues and increasing maintenance costs over time, leading to the planning of this project.
Though the FAA cannot guarantee future funding as it is dependent on the discretion of Congress, Romo says their current timeline projects receiving funding to finalize the runway designs in 2021 with construction grant funding coming in 2022, 2023 or 2024 and the latest they’ve heard is that FAA officials will push to provide 90 percent of the funding for the project. Current projections for the city’s share of the project puts the 100 foot wide runway at a $3.6 million price tag. If the FAA doesn’t change course on its current funding stance on the 150 foot runway, undertaking the project without full FAA support would cost the city $7.6 million.
The FAA has been funding $3.3 billion in infrastructure improvements annually for over a decade, which City Manager Ron Fehr and Mike Dmyterko of Coffman Associates say has resulted in decreased purchasing power every year due to inflation and has led to the potential decrease in funding. Fehr says he expect Congress will need to act.
“I think something will give, we’ve been hearing of the need for infrastructure money for a long time,” says Fehr, advocating that they wait for design grants before moving forward. “And I think we use the time in between there to solidify and advocate for broader funding.”
Commissioner Linda Morse echoed the need for federal funding for the project, saying the 150 foot runway is necessary.
“I don’t want to have the communities on either side of us be the 150 feet and we get stuck with the 100 feet [runway].”
Commissioner Wynn Butler says they should try to leverage their proximity to Fort Riley in the funding negotiations. He also noted some citizens have taken the recent sales tax vote to be a message not to move forward with any of the projects, though he doesn’t think anyone is suggesting closing the airport.
“And then people are saying well, no sweat, if you’ve got to build the airport [runway]just fund it out of existing funds,” says Butler. “So if we’re going to do that, fine, then we got to figure out what we’re going to cut.”
Commissioner Jerred McKee says FAA funding is vital and the project is important, but it will be constrained by rising employee costs that drive the trend of mill levy increases over the past years and stopping that pattern should be the commission’s number one project in coming years.
“We also need to be advocating on the state level for revenue sharing again or changes into the income tax model because what we’re doing right now is not sustainable,” says McKee.
If the project moves forward, whether undertaken all in one or in multiple stages there will be a period where the airport has to be closed entirely. Based on the recommended renovation method, a one-phase project would close the facility for about 80 days. A four-stage process would close it entirely for just under two months with 40 days where planes will not be able to use some portion of the runway length, limiting the airport to general aviation and not commercial flights.
Mayor Pro Tempore Usha Reddi says they need to be cautious about closing down the airport for an extended period.
“I don’t want something that happened with the Country Stampede to happen,” says Reddi. “We shut down for 60 to 90 days and they find some other place that’s better and they stay there — we want them to come back, so we need to figure out a plan to bring them back once they go.”
Mayor Mike Dodson agreed that once people go it will be hard to get them back, advocating for the multi-stage approach and saying they should look into alternatives like buses to Salina to continue providing services during the closure periods.
“I think keeping the G.A. open is important, too,” says Dodson. “So we have some revenue and some operations out there.”
Fehr says the full weight of any costs won’t impact the budget until after the design process starts, which may occur in 2021. Construction wouldn’t begin until 2022 at the earliest.