Mitchell Airport Must Create Space To Halt Overruns

Before Mitchell International Airport can proceed with expansion plans, federal officials will insist on steps to ensure that airliners don't skid off runways into traffic on nearby streets, Airport Director C. Barry Bateman said Thursday.

That could mean anything from shortening or moving runways to building bridges over E. Layton, E. College and S. Howell avenues and nearby railroad tracks, Bateman said.

When the airport does expand, it should build more concourses and more gates as part of its existing terminal, rather than add a second terminal, consultants recommended. The consultants also said building a new east-west runway through the space now occupied by the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 440th Airlift Wing would be more cost effective than expanding an existing north-south runway.

Also Thursday, a County Board committee called for a study on selling or leasing Mitchell and Timmerman airports to private operators, setting up a potential rivalry with a proposal for the state Legislative Council to conduct a simultaneous study on how Mitchell should be run.

Supervisor Richard D. Nyklewicz Jr. has said the county study would explore whether privatizing the airports could bring in money to help ease the county's financial problems. He has contrasted it with a failed bill by state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) to hand the county-owned airport over to a regional airport authority.

Stone asked the Legislative Council to study the issues involved in running the airport. The council will decide later this month whether to pursue that study, said Terry Anderson, the council's director.

The airport is designing a master plan that will call for building a new runway and expanding the terminal from 42 gates to 70 over the next 20 years. When consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff finishes the plan, possibly later this year, it will require both County Board and Federal Aviation Administration approval, Bateman told the board's Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee.

But Bateman said the FAA has warned airports that it won't approve expansion plans unless they include steps to avoid the kind of crash that happened at Chicago's Midway Airport in December. In that accident, a Southwest Airlines plane slid off the end of a runway, ran through a fence and plowed into a busy street, killing a 6-year-old boy in a car and injuring 10 other people.

New safety requirements

The week before that crash, President Bush signed a law requiring airports by 2015 to either leave a 1,000-foot buffer zone at the end of each runway or install beds of crushed concrete to slow down planes that overshoot runways. Mitchell and Midway are among 284 commercial airports nationwide that have done neither, according to the FAA.

Bateman said airport officials are considering a variety of options to deal with that issue, including bridges over the streets. It's too early to say which option would work best, how much it would cost or how long it would take, he said.

For the terminal expansion, consultant Steve Ryan said his firm had ruled out options that would expand the current terminal upward and double-deck the roadway in front; build a second terminal near the current terminal; or build more distantly separated terminals, linked by a rail line, he said.

Instead, the consulting firm recommended the least expensive option, costing about $640 million, Ryan said. As demand grows, the terminal would expand to the southwest, adding a new Concourse F and Concourse G on space now occupied by a parking lot. The parking garage and remote lot also would be expanded.

As for two runway expansion concepts that have been planned since 1992, Ryan said extending the north-south runway would cost $25 million but save airlines less than $1 million a year in reduced delays, falling short of an FAA standard for runways to pay for themselves within 20 years. A new east-west runway would save more than $13 million a year, justifying its $242 million cost in about 18 years, he said.

In addition to running through the air base, which the 440th plans to abandon, the new runway would extend over College and Howell avenues and cut through the New Coeln neighborhood, northwest of the intersection of those streets.

Ryan said air traffic forecasts suggest the new runway will be needed between 2016 and 2025. Planning and building a new runway can take up to 10 years -- but the airlines, which pay for all airport improvements -- aren't financially healthy enough to consider it, Bateman said. The issue is likely to arise during airline lease talks in 2010, he said.

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