The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

Airport improvement process begins


The Alaska Department of Transportation got the ball rolling last week when it held an informational meeting in Seward about planned improvements for the Seward Airport.

On Thursday, Sept. 11, members of the team dealing with the airport improvements set up work stations with representatives from different areas of engineering and specialists to answer community questions. At least two dozen residents attended the info meeting, moving from one station to another with questions about different phases and aspects of the project.

One of those residents with a lot to lose is Denny Hamilton, owner of Seward Air, which has supplied fuel to small aircraft and large jets for more than two decades.

“I wasn’t impressed,” said Hamilton. “I think they have already made up their minds about what they’re going to do.”

Hamilton’s enthusiasm for the start of the airport improvement process is low because the DOT presentation reported that construction will not begin until 2018 with a likely completion date of 2020.

“I don’t know if I can hang on that long,” said Hamilton.

In her opening presentation, principal civil engineer for the project, Royce Conlon, said she knows people would like to be at the construction phase now, but the process is lengthy and layered.

“This is just the start of the process,” said Conlon. “We need input and feedback from the community before we ever get to a design stage.”

Conlon explained the multi-phased workflow which started with project identification. That was the easy part, she said, because it’s clear the Seward Airport is in trouble and needs help. In 2014, the runway experienced a lot of damage from flooding that is increasingly happening more often with the river re-routing itself over time and flowing across the runways.

In 2013, the weight limit for aircraft was reduced to 12,500 pounds, prohibiting large aircraft from landing. Since then, there have been several instances in which the Seward airport was needed either for Coast Guard related activities or medical emergencies, said Hamilton. The weight restriction has damaged Hamilton’s fuel business significantly and endangers lives that need the services large planes offer.

In light of the plans to develop the Seward Marine Industrial Center and expand the railroad operations, a functioning airport is necessary say all parties concerned. Engineer Joy Vaughn, on hand to answer questions at the DOT information meeting, said she isn’t aware of any group or individual that doesn’t want to see the airport restored to full capacity.

“Because the majority of the funding for airport projects come from the federal government,” said Vaughn, “we have to demonstrate a need and the federal government has very specific guidelines for documenting the need.”

Vaughn said she understands that people think the DOT has predetermined what kind of work is necessary and the call for public input is disengenuous, but she reitered throughout the meeting to multiple community members that the community outreach and public comment really does play a big role in determining the scope of the airport improvements which is then presented in the form of grant applications to the federal government.

The process explained at the information session went from scoping to environmental documentation to right of way issues to detailed design and then finally, construction. The DOT project team are trying to keep everything in balance, said Conlon. Trying to balance safety with community needs, natural environment and costs, is challenging, she said. But, she said at the center of the balancing act is public involvement.

Some members of the community made it known to engineers that because they had negative past experiences with the DOT and transparency, they were skeptical that they would be kept in the loop during the process.

“They went out there and cut down trees without telling anyone it was coming,” said Carol Griswald. “We would at least like to brace ourselves with some notice.”

Griswald wasn’t alone when it came to matters of trust. Shannon McCarthy, public information officer for the project, said large government agency projects often come with a mistrusting public and it’s their job to be transparent and earn the trust of residents affected by the project.

“This first meeting was about listening,” said McCarthy. “We have to listen and hear what people are thinking.”

As the process moves forward, said McCarthy, there will be more public outreach to make sure the agencies are not talking over residents of Seward.

Project Manager Barb Beaton said the website that will be up and running soon will be a great tool for the Department of Transportation.

“It will be an interactive site where people can make comments and ask questions,” said Beaton. “We really are interested in ideas from the people who live there, what they think about issues like wind and flooding and property issues.”

In addition to the website, McCarthy said another tool will be an advisory board made up of city officials, railroad officials and borough officials. That group will then report back to their respective groups, she said.

Two ideas have already been suggested by community members and Beaton said all suggestions will be discussed and considered. Several Seward residents, with decades of experience living near the airport, told DOT project officials how the Resurrection River had changed course slowly over time. The paving of roads and bridge construction upstream, they said, sped up the river’s migration closer and closer to the airport runway.

“If the Ballaine brothers came here right now to settle and build Seward here, they couldn’t,” said Kerry Martin, longtime Seward resident and former city officer. “In 1903 you could, but not now.”

Martin, referring to the increasing flooding experienced by Seward, said he agrees with others who think the least expensive method to salvage the airport runways over the long haul is to re-direct the river using gravel and excavation back to its former course.

Project Manager Beaton said the team has discussed this idea with several residents and she is not ruling it out as an option. The state has hired a hydrologist and his recommendation will be reported to the advisory board and residents for discussion.

“When we are comfortable and think the report is ready for public viewing, we will make it public,” said Beaton.

Hamilton, whose livelihood is on the line, said the timeframe is disheartening. He has suggested a solution that would allow the airport to operate at higher capacity while the Department of Transportation continues the studies required to receive federal funding.

Hamilton said he has spoken with the Federal Aviation Administration and was told the airport might qualify for a Prior Permission Required (PPR) process. Under the PPR program, larger planes could be allowed to land in Seward after they file for permission. Then, DOT engineers would arrive on site and study the runway as it relates to real time.

“I think they can be monitoring aircraft while they are dong their studies,” said Hamilton. This would allow planes over 12,500 pounds to land, and be serviced by companies like Hamiltons.

Project Manager Beaton said she has no knowledge of such a program because that type of issue falls under “operations” at the DOT. She said she would discuss it with the appropriate manager because she does not have the authority to authorize such a program.

Assistant City Manager Ron Long said he also was not aware of the PPR program administered by the FAA.

“I see no reason why that can’t be investigated as a possibility,” said Long. “The DOT is saying that it is open to ideas, and here is an idea.”

Long said the current “airport master plan” is not a binding document. It’s outdated and only useful as a tool for framing a discussion about transportation needs. The DOT and the city are not limited by the master plan, he said. 
When it comes to the idea of re-routing the river, Long said that so far, the DOT has not ruled that in or out.

“They have had ample opportunity to say yes or no,” said Long. “But I’m not sure if they have really considered that method.”

Because of the additional layers of regulations that apply to working with waterways, the idea may seem like more work and more money, said Long, but that shouldn’t be a deal breaker if re-routing the river is the best method for the situation.

With the runway flooding under scrutiny, said Long, it may be a great opportunity to look at new funding sources because other areas of Seward are threatened by increasing flooding.

The viability of the airport is important to the big picture, said Long. The Seward Marine Industrial Complex and the planned railroad dock expansion are forward thinking projects so it makes sense to envision an airport that will match that vision.


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