Study of runway expansion at Ann Arbor airport nears completion with $42.5K contract approval
The City Council voted 6-3 to approve a $42,500 grant contract with the Michigan Department of Transportation's Office of Aeronautics for work related to the ongoing environmental assessment.
That will cover a reimbursement agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration for completion of the environmental assessment for the project. Specifically, the FAA will review the impacts the proposed runway changes might have on federally owned navigational systems at the airport.
Council Members Jane Lumm, Stephen Kunselman and Sabra Briere voted against going forward with the work, questioning the expense.
Margie Teall and Marcia Higgins were absent.
"I do feel that whether it's city money or not, at what point do we stop wasting money — regardless of whose it is — on a project with very little chance of going forward?" Lumm asked. "I thought we were at that point in April when this last came before us, and I feel the same way today."
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Kulhanek said the latest expenditure is comprised of $40,375 in federal funds, $1,062 in state funds and $1,063 in airport matching funds.
The airport's share of the grant is included in its current operating budget, and all funding — state, federal and local — will come from fees paid by users of aviation industry services, Kulhanek said.
"The requested action in no way approves any construction or bidding to make any changes to the runway," Kulhanek also told council members.
The environmental assessment process is a requirement of the FAA and MDOT-Aero, which regulates aviation activities at the Ann Arbor airport. Kulhanek said it's a highly regulated process dictated by the National Environmental Policy Act and includes a significant public input process.
Following Monday night's action by council, Kulhanek said it could take six months for the FAA to do a final review and sign off on the environmental assessment. After that, he said, a proposal to go forward with actually designing a runway extension could come back to the City Council for consideration.
Mayor John Hieftje asked if the city would be gaining any information from the work approved Monday night that would be useful even if the city doesn't extend the runway.
Kulhanek said it's important to complete the environmental assessment so the city can have a documented assessment of the potential impacts of any runway changes, which allows for an informed decision on whether to consider the project. He said the FAA, MDOT and the city have invested considerable resources into making sure the final product is an accurate and complete assessment.
"Do we get to the end of this process after this?" Hieftje said, getting a chuckle from Kulhanek, who assured the mayor it would complete the environmental assessment.
The debate over the proposed runway extension — which is billed by proponents as a safety improvement — has been ongoing for at least the last few years.
Pittsfield Township resident Andy McGill showed up to Monday night's meeting to speak on behalf of a grassroots citizens group opposed to extending the runway near their subdivision.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Airport officials say the extension reduces the likelihood of overruns, or cases where pilots go beyond the limits of the current 3,500-foot runway.
Council Member Carsten Hohnke, a pilot who says he's used the Ann Arbor airport many times, said the safety data he's seen hasn't convinced him there's any need for a runway extension, but he can see why the runway might need to be shifted away from State Road at some point in the future.
"I think given the opportunity we have here for expending a very reasonable amount of funds to provide the option of understanding how to shift the runway — if that ever becomes necessary and prudent for the city — that it's a wise investment," he said before voting in favor of the study work.
McGill called the nearly $400,000 spent on the environmental assessment to date "staggering." He said it was $100,000 more than what council members were told three and a half years ago.
"The airport EA has become a money pit for taxpayers — federal, state and local," he said, suggesting the FAA isn't exactly enthused about the project, either. "Do you think the FAA might be trying to send you a message in delaying this EA longer than any other in its recent history?"
Since there are federally owned navigational aids — specifically an omni-directional approach lighting system — at the end of the runway, the FAA needs to determine if the system needs to be shifted and what impacts that may have, Kulhanek said.
It originally was anticipated that work would be done as part of the FAA's earlier review of the draft environmental assessment, he acknowledged. But when the FAA-Great Lakes Region Office determined it would not need to sign off on the EA, the work was not undertaken, Kulhanek said.
But then FAA Technical Operations notified the city in April that it would need to complete the navigational aid review under a reimbursement agreement. "There are two federally owned navigational aid systems at the airport and those will both be impacted by the proposed runway safety extension project," Kulhanek said. "What they're doing is taking a look at those two systems and making a determination on how those may be impacted if the project moves forward."
McGill said he didn't have a problem with the council's approval of paying to have the FAA review the final environmental assessment. More troublesome, he said, is the provision to have the FAA study the navigational aids, or approach lighting, related to the proposed runway extension.
"You are actually giving the FAA a blank check from the city of Ann Arbor," he told council members. "Because one condition of that FAA grant contract says Ann Arbor taxpayers must pay to move or replace the navigational lighting — the runway approach lights — long into the future."
McGill estimated that could cost city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and asked council members: Is that a line you want to cross?
"Do you think it's time to end this thing?" he said.
Briere asked Kulhanek to describe the source of the $1,063 local match the city put up Monday night. He said it doesn't involve tax dollars, but rather revenue from airport hangar rentals and fuel fees.
"That's where these fees for all of these local matches have come from through this entire project," Kulhanek said.
Council Member Mike Anglin, D-5th Ward, asked how many jobs are supported by the airport. Kulhanek estimated about 75 to 100, including three full-time city employees, more than 20 FAA employees at the control tower and dozens of others who work at various private businesses at the airport.
Lumm said she's spoken with someone who has reviewed three decades worth of accident reports at the airport and determined not a single one was due to the length of the runway.
"They were all mechanical and pilot error," she said, acknowledging there have been nine fatalities over the years. She said she feared a runway extension could exacerbate problems, though.
"I don't feel this expansion will materialize," she said.
Responding to questions posed by Lumm, Kulhanek estimated there are about 170 total aircraft at the airport right now, about 60 percent of which are single-engine planes. McGill's group has claimed airport officials are using the runway expansion to position the airport to accept aircraft weighing 40,000 pounds — twice the current limit.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.