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Park Point airport may build on bay to fix runway problems

Sky Harbor Airport plan; click on the image for a larger view. (News Tribune graphic)

After seven years of study, a costly fix may finally be on the horizon for Sky Harbor Airport.

The continued operation of the unique airport on Duluth’s Park Point has been thrown into question because of trees obstructing the approach to its runway. Some of the trees in an old-growth forest adjacent to the landing strip are upwards of 200 years old and stand as tall as 100 feet high.

Kaci Nowicki, an airport planner for Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc., said the Minnesota Department of Transportation raised concerns about the safety hazard posed by large trees near the runway several years ago, but it wasn’t until a 2006 tree survey that the scope of the issue came into focus.

It would require more than a bit of trimming to bring the airport into compliance with Federal Aviation Administration standards. In all, 500 to 600 trees would probably need to go. And the forest, composed largely of red and white pines, is part of a protected scientific natural area.

In recent years, pilots have been able to continue using the runway at Sky Harbor, thanks to a special waiver from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. But Nowicki said state officials have made it clear they will not allow an out-of-compliance airport to operate indefinitely, and the facility is running on borrowed time.

If MnDOT withholds a waiver for the airport, its license will lapse and the facility will lose access to any state and federal funding, forcing closure.

What’s more, Duluth would need to repay all federal money it has received for improvements at Sky Harbor in the last 15 years, according to Thomas Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority.

“Those investments were made with the expectation that they would have value to the traveling public in the future, and if the airport was forced to close, it would have huge financial implications,” he said.

Such claw-back provisions in grants Sky Harbor has received in recent years would probably require local officials to come up with about $8 million, according to Werner, who warned: “The Duluth Airport Authority could not bear that kind of cost alone and expect to stay in business. The city would have to be heavily engaged.”

Sky Harbor lacks a control tower, and therefore has no official count of how many flights it handles, but the Federal Aviation Administration estimates the facility handles 13,900 operations per year — about 38 per day. The airport handles floatplanes as well as airplanes with conventional landing gear.

A possible solution

On Tuesday, the Airport Authority will consider whether to publish a draft Environmental Assessment Worksheet that lays out a proposed solution to Sky Harbor’s tree dilemma.

The document recommends the runway be shortened from 3,050 feet to 2,600 feet and rotated 5 degrees to the south, out into Superior Bay. This maneuver would require the creation of about 7½ acres of new bayside shoreland, adding to the existing airport property. Much of that work could be accomplished with the help of pumps and barges moving dredge materials from the harbor. Nowicki said nearly 70,000 cubic yards of fill and an estimated $8.6 million would be required to execute the plan.

While it’s an expensive option, Allyz Kramer, a senior biologist with SEH, said it is the recommended course of action, as it would reorient air traffic enough to avoid any conflict with the forest.

Another alternative explored in the environmental assessment would shift the runway just 1.5 degrees from its current orientation. This would cost a more modest $5.7 million and would require infilling just 3.4 acres of the bay. But it would necessitate the removal of 60 trees initially. An additional 370 trees would need to be removed or topped off within the next 50 years as the forest continues to grow, if that option were chosen.

“We would still be constantly nicking at the forest community out there,” Kramer said.

If the Duluth Airport Authority is successful in advocating for the preferred option identified in the environmental assessment, Scott Sannes, a principal partner and engineer at SEH, contends it would be a strong candidate for federal funding.

Werner said the project would be eligible to receive aid through the FAA’s Aviation Trust Fund, probably leaving the authority to pick up 10 percent of the tab — about $860,000. He said the local authority would be able to shoulder that burden with the help of fees it already collects from airport operations.

If the Airport Authority approves the publishing of the environmental worksheet on Tuesday, the document will be available for public review and comment for the next 45 days. Werner said a public hearing and open house to discuss the options identified at Sky Harbor probably would be scheduled about 30 days into the comment period.

The proposal would be reviewed independently at both the state and federal levels, and if it adequately addresses public concerns, it would be allowed to move forward. If not, further analysis in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement might be required.

If the plan receives favorable marks, the project could be ready for more detailed technical design by the winter of 2015-16.

Construction would be spread out over two seasons, taking care to minimize disruptions during the busy summer months when Park Point is inundated with beach-goers, Nowicki said. The airport project would require an estimated 1,800 truck trips during each year of construction.

Nowicki said the earliest possible completion of the project, if it is approved, would probably be by 2018.

If it moves forward, Sannes said the project would involve the restoration of aquatic habitat elsewhere in the St. Louis River basin to offset the disruption caused by the airport’s expansion into the harbor.

Kramer described the area that would be filled in as shallow water that is home mostly to common species of aquatic life. She said the habitat that would be disturbed probably could support a type of mussel that has been identified as a species of special concern but, so far, none of these particular mussels have been discovered there.