PULLMAN – It took years of planning, some finessing in Congress and millions of dollars in donations, but this bustling college town finally has enough money to replace the small, outdated runway at its airport.
The runway at the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport was built decades ago and doesn’t meet federal design standards for modern commercial planes. Passenger flights into Pullman take place almost exclusively on the 76-seat Bombardier Q400, a plane that the runway isn’t designed to handle.
The runway is too short, too narrow and sits a few degrees too far clockwise, airport officials say. In bad weather, pilots have a hard time spotting it among the rolling hills just east of Washington State University. And despite record-high plane traffic last year that coincides with growing enrollment at the university, the airport regularly is forced to cancel or delay flights due to the limitations of the runway.
“When we had the little 37-passenger planes, years and years ago, it was fine,” Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson said. But now, “The runway is too small and too close to the taxiway for the types of planes that are flying into it.”
On Monday, Johnson announced that the city had secured enough money to begin replacing the runway. Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories Inc. – Pullman’s largest company, with about 2,100 employees locally and nearly 4,000 worldwide – pledged to donate $1 million to the project. Company founder Edmund Schweitzer and his wife, Beatriz, offered an additional $1 million.
“Rural communities like the Pullman-Moscow area really need good commercial air service, and that starts with a good airport,” Edmund Schweitzer said. “Pullman will have a good airport at the end of this project.”
Construction on the new runway will begin early next year and should be completed in late 2019. According to Mead & Hunt Inc., the engineering firm overseeing the project, the project alone will create nearly 200 jobs and generate more than $25 million through wages and spending during construction.
Airport manager Tony Bean said the economic impact will last far beyond the renovation. Without commercial service into Pullman, local businesses and farmers, WSU and the University of Idaho would suffer, he said.
“Everything in the Palouse that is produced, whether it’s garbanzo beans and wheat, or technological advancement and research, relies on good aviation,” he said. “It’s critical – everything here is global in some way. It’s truly a quality-of-life issue.”
The contributions from the Schweitzers and the laboratories make up more than a quarter of the local funds needed to begin construction. The total cost of the project is estimated between $89 million and $119 million, and the Federal Aviation Administration will pay most of that. The city of Pullman had to pay at least $7.2 million.
Pullman and Moscow each are paying $2.5 million. The University of Idaho will contribute $500,000, and another $100,000 will come from Latah County. Planners expect $1.25 million in grants from the Washington Department of Transportation. Bean said he’s still in talks with the Idaho Transportation Department, the Port of Whitman and WSU – which will lose a plot of farmland used for research during the renovation.
Until December, federal law said a Washington city would have to pay 10 percent of airport renovation costs, while an Idaho city would have to pay only 6.25 percent. The calculations were based on the amount of federal land in each state.
The airport is owned by the city of Pullman, but because it sits 4 miles from the border and draws extensive business from both states, city officials asked Congress to amend the law. Now, for airports near state borders, the percentage of the cost that must come from local sources is averaged between the two states. That shrank Pullman’s cost from 10 percent to 8.125 percent. The FAA is responsible for 91.875 percent.
City, state and federal officials foresaw problems at the airport in the early 1970s and briefly considered building a larger airport near Genesee, Idaho. Needs compounded, and officials surveyed the land again in 1999, laying roots for the current renovation project. The airport stopped meeting design standards in 2006 and has since operated under an exemption from the FAA.
A year ago, engineers with Mead & Hunt determined the most cost-effective plan is to rotate the runway about 5.5 degrees counterclockwise. Workers will build a second runway on the south side of the existing one, and the two will meet at the east end, forming a V shape. They’ll start from the west end of the new runway, so planes will continue landing on the existing one until the two converge.
The new runway will stretch 7,100 feet, about 400 feet longer than the existing one. And there will be more room between the runway and the adjacent taxiway, so other aircraft can be in the taxiway without getting hit by the wing of a landing plane. Some changes will be made to the airport’s lone terminal, and some instruments will be replaced or relocated.
Bean said the project won’t significantly affect service.
“There will be shutdowns, but it will be very, very minimal,” he said.
Edmund Schweitzer said he’s happy his donation will help the community. And, it’s good for business: The laboratories’ four planes make about 30 trips out of the airport each week.
“Basically, without business aviation, we couldn’t be in Pullman, Washington,” Schweitzer said. “I benefit from business aviation, our company does, our community does.”
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