Mar. 29--Hip-deep in a pizza-sized hole, electrician Ken Hunter crimps some of the hundreds of miles of wiring that soon will illuminate the $1.28 billion fifth runway at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
"These are the finishing touches," said Hunter, 42, of Douglasville, who has installed blue lights along the taxiway edges, white ones along the runway and red, amber and green ones in other places.
"We're getting close to the end," he said. "We're almost done."
He was speaking of his own work, yet his words apply to the whole slab that Atlanta officials call the Most Important Runway in America. Except for lighted Xs at both ends signifying the 9,000-foot strip is not yet open to airplanes, the massive construction project is virtually complete.
The 36-inch thick concrete is dry and painted; elevated, pulsating strings of lights stand ready to guide pilots toward the runway in poor weather; and two bridges spanning I-285 --- one for the runway, one for a taxiway --- can support gargantuan jets weighing up to 1.3 million pounds.
A series of public and private celebrations are planned for the days leading up to the May 27 opening, including a party on the concrete surface May 20 that includes a 5K runway run.
The runway is the first added at Hartsfield-Jackson since 1984, and aviation officials say it's critical to relieving air traffic congestion along the East Coast.
"We're the busiest airport in the world and delays here impact airlines, passengers and the national airspace system," said Ben DeCosta, general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson. "This runway is going to cut delays, save the airlines money and improve customer service."
The new runway won't initially bring more Atlanta flights because no new passenger gates have been added yet. But aviation officials say it will reduce delays that play havoc with airline schedules and passenger travel, especially during poor weather.
Here's how: Air traffic controllers currently use two of Hartsfield-Jackson's parallel runways for arrivals and two for departures. The airport typically handles about 98 arrivals an hour at peak times during good weather, but that number falls to 68 an hour during low visibility.
With a fifth runway, controllers can guide planes to three runways at the same time instead of two. That 50-percent capacity increase is expected to raise arrivals as high as 140 an hour in good weather and 100 an hour on gloomy days.
"We don't expect the new runway to bring more traffic," said Tom Nissalke, the airport's director for environmental and technical services. "We do expect it to reduce delays in all weather conditions."
Originally known as the "commuter runway" because it was conceived to handle smaller planes, the new slab has been on the airport's drawing board since the late 1980s. The FAA approved a planned 6,000-foot runway in 1994 that would have avoided the costly trans-Interstate bridges, some land acquisitions and other expenses.
But industry trends rendered that design obsolete, as the turbo-prop aircraft that regional airlines flew then were already giving way to regional jets requiring more pavement.
The FAA approved the airport's much more ambitious plans for the current 9,000-foot long, 150-foot wide fifth runway in 2001, and construction has continued throughout the dramatic post-9/11 downturn in passenger traffic and subsequent rise.
The FAA will pay about $245 million toward runway construction; airlines will repay about $315 million in bonds through landing fees; and passengers will pay more than $720 million through $4.50 surcharges the airport has been collecting since the late 1990s.
Despite the new runway's massive scale and complexity, it's one of a few construction projects airport managers say will be finished on time and under budget. An international concourse is years behind schedule and will cost far more to complete than first expected, due in part to a decision last year to fire the architects who drew up the original plans.
Construction recently began on a $468 million program to build a rental car facility connected to the terminal by an elevated "people mover," and airport officials say costs on the 3-year project are already rising.
A new $31 million control tower is scheduled to open in May.
The runway project did survive an early brush with scandal. C.R. "Ronnie" Thornton, a contractor, pleaded guilty to making $130,000 in illegal campaign contributions to then-Mayor Bill Campbell in a failed bid to win a lucrative deal to bring in dirt for the huge earthen mound required to put the new runway at airport level. That deal was in the news during Campbell's recent corruption trial.
But airport officials say that, ironically, moving 18 million cubic yards of fill dirt (enough to fill the Georgia Dome six times) went remarkably smoothly. The 5.5-mile conveyor belt that carried dirt over I-285 eliminated about 5 million dump truck trips.
Airport officials say the fifth runway is almost surely the last one that will be built at Hartsfield-Jackson. The airport spent $390 million buying up land for the new runway, including homes, churches, fast-food restaurants and burial sites --- and there's simply no room for another two-mile chunk of concrete at the airfield that began in 1925 at an abandoned auto racetrack.
"I don't think we'll ever build another new runway," DeCosta said. "The cost would be astronomical, and we wouldn't get nearly as much benefit as this one provides."
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