Erie, Pa., Runway Project Delayed

Oct. 26--Planes are not going to land on an extended runway at Erie International Airport in 2007 as officials had hoped.

In fact, airport officials are hesitant to guess a completion date for the $53 million runway extension project, but they would not rule out the possibility that it might be 2009 before pilots touch down on a longer Erie runway.

"We have completely revised the schedule," said Kelly Fredericks, the airport's executive director, after Tuesday's meeting of the Erie Municipal Airport Authority. "We have had to revise the schedule as we go."

Just six months ago, Fredericks said he still expected the planned 1,900-foot-long runway extension to be completed by the end of 2007.

On Tuesday, he said it now appears that it could be "2007 or beyond" before crews are able to start laying blacktop.

The paper trail that leads to a new runway has proven to be longer and more involved than airport officials had expected.

Not only do local officials have to win federal regulatory approval for the runway project, they also must gain the required permits from state and federal environmental agencies.

Fredericks said that as airport officials and consultants got deeper into the "nuts and bolts" of the project this summer, they were able to get a better fix on how much more paperwork, preparation and time is likely to be needed to begin construction.

The eastward runway extension must fit in a small patch of land that is occupied by homes, businesses, wetlands, a highway, a golf course and a reclaimed Superfund waste site.

Airport officials and consultants have yet to convince the Federal Aviation Administration and other regulatory agencies that their plans -- presented as an environmental assessment --can resolve or remedy any environmental and community issues the runway construction would create.

After more than two years of trying, airport officials hoped FAA approval of their environmental assessment would have come last Friday.

Instead, they got word the FAA wanted to put a draft approval out for another 30-day public review process, under a new policy the agency instituted this summer for sensitive projects.

Fredericks said the 30-day review period of the FAA's draft environmental review would begin as soon as the agency issues one.

He said he hopes that could come as soon as Friday.

Fredericks and Paul Spence, a project manager with consulting firm Michael Baker, called the extended 30-day additional protection.

The added review would help make the project more "bulletproof" from potential litigation.

"(The additional review) is money well spent," Fredericks told airport board members.

In an earlier telephone interview, Spence said the FAA approval is the critical step necessary for the project to get started.

"We can't even think about land acquisition or design or permitting until we get a finding (by the FAA)," he said.

Fredericks said the additional review does not represent a significant delay, as long as it is followed by FAA approval.

Once that comes, he said, airport consultants could begin contacting owners of homes and businesses to be acquired to make way for the extension.

Work that could begin sometime in 2006 could be acquisition and demolition of properties and the relocation of Powell Avenue -- the state highway that runs across the easternmost tip of the existing runway.

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