Bill would fuel Sky Harbor Airport runway fix

A project slated to begin this fall could finally bring Duluth's Sky Harbor Airport runway approach into compliance with the Minnesota Department of Transportation's safety standards.


A project slated to begin this fall could finally bring Duluth's Sky Harbor Airport runway approach into compliance with the Minnesota Department of Transportation's safety standards.

But the project can't get off the ground without around $930,000 in state funding. Those dollars are included in a transportation bill that's now wending its way through the Minnesota Legislature, said Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority. With Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican lawmakers at odds over a funding mechanism, support for mass transit and other items in the bill, however, its passage remains far from certain.

"Everybody's got their fingers crossed," Werner said.

After years of debate, study and planning, Werner said he's eager to actually get to work at Sky Harbor.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation flagged Sky Harbor more than a decade ago, pointing to the height of trees growing in an adjacent forest as a potential hazard to aircraft. A subsequent 2006 tree survey identified 500 to 600 trees that likely would need to be removed from the old-growth forest to bring the existing airport into compliance with state safety standards.


Residents mobilized to protect the Park Point trees - mostly red and white pine - including some specimens that are believed to be more than two centuries old and some that stand up to 100 feet tall.

"There was extreme outrage. People were very dismayed at the thought of having to cut all those trees down," said Dawn Buck, president of the Park Point Community Club. She said a core group of club members went so far as to hire an attorney to protect the forest.

The Duluth Airport Authority explored a number of options before settling on a plan to re-orient the runway, rotating it 5 degrees toward the harbor, so most of the trees would no longer be in the flight path of approaching and departing planes.

"I think it's a great compromise," Buck said. "Hardly anything is going to get cut down now. It seems like a win-win, but of course there are going to be trucks and things like that to deal with."

To pull off the project, the airport will need to create an extra 7½ acres of new land along its bayside shore. That's no small feat, as it will require nearly 70,000 cubic yards of fill, according to preliminary estimates.

Werner said the airport is looking at a number of possibilities, including depositing dredge spoils on the site and hauling in suitable materials via barge and truck.

Assuming state funding comes through, Werner said work should begin shortly after Labor Day, Sept. 4. Because of the scope of the job, Werner projects it will take three years to complete.

So as not to interfere with airport operations during Sky Harbor's busiest season - May to September - the heaviest work would occur each fall.


"There will be some work that we'll do throughout the summers, as well, but it will be ancillary in nature and not disruptive," Werner said.

He expects Sky Harbor to remain open through the early phases of the project, until enough fill is in place to tear up the old runway and replace it with a new one angled out into the bay - a final task that's likely to take two to three weeks.

Even then, the airport will continue to serve floatplanes that also frequent the facility.

"We'll be talking with many of our aviation stakeholders, community members and municipal leaders over the next few months as part of our project outreach, to discuss the project with them and make sure that they understand the phasing and what they can expect. We'll also certainly take their feedback and input on how we can make that better," Werner said.

He said Sky Harbor recently received the final permits it needed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

If state funding is approved, it will cover just 10 percent of the anticipated total project cost - $9.3 million. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to pick up the rest of the tab. But the actual price will likely grow, as Werner noted additional environmental mitigation will probably be required.

Buck said the airport authority has done a good job of keeping community club members involved and informed.

"I've heard mostly positive comments about co-existence - preserving both recreational aviation and that beautiful forest. It's gorgeous," she said.


Werner agreed that the plan now in hand strikes a balance.

"The goal was to figure out what solution was not only going to make Sky Harbor a viable facility in the short term but 50 years from now. And this plan that we now have completely removes the hazard of an old-growth forest to aviation. It allows the trees to grow and mature. Again, finding a way for this natural resource and aviation to co-exist is what we wanted to accomplish, and I think we've done that," he said.

Buck put it succinctly: "I think it's the best outcome we could have hoped for."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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