For five years, the city has deliberated on how to address a changing airport safety code, with changes to the safety clearance zones that would require private properties near the airport to be cleared, some of those properties now sitting vacant waiting on the decision.
But a recent loss of a federal grant is freeing up city staff, consultants and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to slow down the process and take a closer look at the feasibility of the proposed airport design alternatives.
Airport Master Plan takes too long
The airport master plan, last updated in 2009, creates goals for the airport’s needs. Planning for the next update started in 2014, and the longest part of the process was working with FAA to determine if the safety zones of the runway need to expand, based off the use from larger jets. The FAA determined the airport needed to upgrade.
The city council has been working with a consultant, Mead and Hunt, and the FAA to try to figure out what the airport needs to look like to handle the needs of general aviation, and Boeing’s test and delivery flights. Early this year, the council decided on a preferred alternative design for the runway, extending it north into Lake Washington, which required at least amount of private properties south of the airport — 36. The next alternative for the Renton Airport Advisory Committee (RAAC) and Renton City Council is to look at extending the safety zone around the runway east or west.
But at the Aug. 5 Renton Transportation Committee, city staff alerted council the grant used to pay the consultant Mead and Hunt is expiring due to the 2016 Grants Oversight and New Efficiency (GONE) Act, which closes grants that aren’t spent within five years.
City staff explained the grant paying for the consulting firm was hitting its expiration date, with $110,000 unspent. City staff and council committee members did not want to find a way to extend the grant.
Councilmember Randy Corman said he was relieved with the news, as this gives the city the chance to “self-correct” the path they were going down with the Airport Master Plan. Corman has recently expressed concern with how the consultants, who are paid for with the grant, were handling the master plan, and losing the grant money conveniently allows them to end the contract.
“By wrapping up the contract now, you can argue we’re forfeiting up to $100,000 for these consultants,” Corman said. “However, it also appears the FAA is saying we would have lost it anyways.”
City staff said at the Transportation Committee Meeting the city will need to continue a deliberate effort on the master plan, but there’s no longer a time pressure, and the FAA was understanding to this since the decision wouldn’t hurt ongoing airport maintenance grants.
Corman said the city was being “squeezed” by the timing of the master plan. This gives him a chance to look at the issues he’s questioned in a recent blog post about the Airport Master Plan.
City questioning the process
Corman said he had been questioning the master plan during the first decision, and saw the public’s concern with how much land south of the runway may have to be cleared. But when the consultants brought forward the runway widening alternatives, that was “the final straw” for him.
At the June 25 Renton Airport Advisory Committee, consultants presented the second stage of the alternatives, which determines how the runway widens. The first stage of the alternative, already chosen, looked at the runway north to south.
This is when airport operators and other committee members learned many hangars would be removed or downsized, Boeing production stalls would be reduced and either the east or west sides of the airport would be hit with significant property loss.
It pitted a group of airport operators and business against each other, and against the community, Corman said. Having to relocate could even shutter some airport businesses.
“It’s such a delicate balance operating an airport in the middle of a city like this,” Corman said. “It seems like we’re running the risk of creating a lot of animosity between the community and the airport, as both sides sustain major losses because of this Airport Master Plan.”
He said the tension could get to the point where it’s hard to operate the airport.
In a previous article on the Airport Master Plan, a Consultant at Mead and Hunt Ryan Hayes said larger aircraft make up only 750 of the approximately 115,000 annual operations of all planes at the airport, but after 500 operations from larger aircraft the safety zones change. After a year-and-a-half of discussions with FAA, it was determined the standards couldn’t be waived.
At the RAAC Aug. 13 meeting, Airport staff said the number of larger aircraft operations has even increased since the 2015 count, and that forecasts show it won’t go down anytime soon.
But Corman said he believes it’s not that hard and fast. He said the Federal Aviation Administration advisory circular for airport design, which shows a preferred way that an airport can gain safety approval, doesn’t fit the special case of Renton airport.
“Nothing changed when we were delivering 400 versus 500, it’s not like it became inherently less safe,” Corman said. “When they wrote the advisory circular they assumed it would be in pairs, there’d be a landing and a takeoff.”
He said as a manufacturing hub for the Boeing 737, most of those jets are taking off, not landing. These are often the maiden voyage for these planes, on their way for delivery.
But at the August RAAC meeting, representatives from the FAA made it clear that they do not see a difference between a takeoff and a landing, and that any changes to what the FAA is asking for the Renton airport wouldn’t be addressed until after the airport makes a “good faith effort” to meet the preferred standards.
The FAA representative also said although the airport circular can be thought of as a “preferred way” for the airport design, not following it would result in a loss in grants from the FAA, something the Renton airport relies on for big maintenance projects.
Instead of focusing on the 737 as a critical aircraft, which requires the change in code and increased runway safety zone, Corman said they should retain the prior airport grade and make modifications as needed. But the FAA representative and airport staff said it was very unlikely they would downgrade the airport, especially after years of deliberation and an increasing number of large jet takeoffs in Renton.
For now, the RAAC meeting ended with everyone agreeing the next step should be a financial feasibility study, to determine if losing as much private property as the safety zoning requires would harm the airport’s ability to be self-sustainable. A FAA representative said that would be one of the factors to look at once the master plan alternatives are chosen and they begin to consider modifications.