City begins to move forward with airport extension possibilities

The FAA confirmed new standards must be met, and Renton must decide how the airport will change.

Renton Municipal Airport needs an update, and it isn’t going to be easy. Or cheap. But future years of planning, coordination and 90 percent of the project eligible for outside funding, with the other 10 percent coming from airport revenue, will help.

Three years ago, the airport master plan was put on hold to see if there was any way the Federal Aviation Administration could waive standards that say Renton Municipal Airport must expand its safety area. A year and a half later of back-and-forth discussions, it was determined there was no way the standards could be waived.

Monday, Sept. 24, Renton City Council was presented with three preferred alternatives for expanding the safety standards at Scott Clayton Field. In the next few months, the council will be able to determine which alternative they prefer, but it won’t immediately mean shovels in the ground.

“Best case for turning dirt would be 2025,” said Ryan Hayes, Mead and Hunt consultant for the airport master plan. “It’s quite a few years out, and that’s a best-case timeline. But it’s important for the community to know that these changes are not going to happen any time soon. There’s a lot more process to happen, a lot more opportunity for public involvement, public comment and public outreach.”

The city predicts it will take even longer, as Chief Administrative Officer Bob Harrison and Deputy Affairs Administrator Preeti Shridhar both said they visited a similar project in Pullman that took 20 years to complete because it also depends on when FAA has sufficient funding after planning is complete.

So why is public outreach already starting? It’s because this project means big changes in the areas surrounding the airport.

The airport’s runway safety area, an extension of the landing in case planes leave the runway, and the runway protection zone, a trapezoidal area past the landing where most aircraft accidents take place, both might need to extend out into Lake Washington and to the block of commercial buildings south of the landing. The current 300 feet length of runway safety area is being bumped to a standard requiring 1,000 feet.

It is recommended by FAA that the airport sponsor, city of Renton, owns and controls the land within that zone.

All the alternatives proposed to use a crushed concrete called EMAS, engineered materials arresting systems, which will act as a sandbox at the end of the landings to decrease the length of the runway safety area from 1000 ft. to 600 ft. The runway will also be narrowed from 200 feet to 150 feet to accommodate for EMAS, which has to be wider than the runway. But this doesn’t change the runway protection zone.

“Alternative four,” currently estimated at $139.4 million, would shift the airport to the south, avoiding work on Lake Washington, but relocating Airport Way to South Tobin Street, and acquiring more surrounding land area. “Alternative five” would only use EMAS on Lake Washington and still acquire land on the south and move Airport Way, an estimated $104.7 million. “Alternative six” creates a concrete dock on Lake Washington, shifts the landing north, with Airport Way staying where it is, costing an estimated $117 million.

“Two of the alternatives relocate Airport Way, another allows it to stay, and that’s really the major difference,” Hayes said. “However, all three recommend the acquisition of property south of the airport, specifically between Airport Way and Tobin Street, and so it’s a similar amount of property acquired in all three. The real question is, “does Airport Way move or stay where it is?”

The block between Airport Way and South Tobin Street includes commercial area and a church. The residential area and ball fields across South Tobin Street are also recommended for relocation by the FAA.

Another big concern was how Renton High School will be affected. While the ball fields are recommended to be moved in all three alternatives, the FAA has assured no high school buildings will need to be relocated. The alternatives all propose new ball field locations adjacent to the school’s campus.

The airport has always reported corporate and jet activity at the airport being low. The FAA regulations for safety zones are dependent on how often aircraft of certain sizes use the runway. But today, with Boeing’s ramp up in production and modern technology being able to more easily calculate flight patterns, the Renton Airport has exceeded 500 annual operations of larger planes.

“An annual operation means a takeoff or a landing. So a touch-and-go of a large aircraft passing through Renton is two operations. It doesn’t matter how many 737s are sitting at the airport being worked on,” Hayes said.

Larger aircraft still make up only 750 of the approximately 115,000 annual operations of all planes at the airport. Hayes said even though safety standards must change, Renton Municipal Airport will serve the same function it has in the past.

No matter the alternative chosen, the Renton Municipal Airport revenue, not the city, will be responsible for paying the 10 percent of costs not covered by outside FAA funding sources, Harrison said.

“There’s no tax money that goes into the airport,” Harrison said. “Whenever we get the final master plan approved and authorization from FAA, we anticipate revenue will come out of airport operation.”

After the alternative is chosen by city council, there will be a three-year environmental impact statement, in accordance with Environmental Policy Act. All three alternatives will impact the Cedar River where it opens into Lake Washington. Hayes said not only do these alternatives have biological impacts on plants and fish, but also the potential for coordination of tribal subsistence fishing rights at the mouth of the Cedar River.

Shridhar said the city will work to continue outreach, especially for people affected by the changes, and will have upcoming public outreach dates available soon.

“We’re required to do the master plan on a fairly regular basis, and I know there will be a lot of public outreach, but at the end of the day, we still need to comply with the FAA regulations that are in place to run the airport. One of our goals is to also have the smallest impact within the community and surrounding area,” Harrison said. “It’s not that the city planned to make these investments, we just have to comply with regulations. We want to have a safe airport.”