PORT ANGELES — William R. Fairchild International Airport will remain eligible for about $5 million in federal maintenance funds to upgrade 5,000 feet of runway.
The Dec. 8 determination by the Federal Aviation Administration drew sighs of relief from Port of Port Angeles officials.
Trouble is, the maintenance funds won’t take the port to the end of the 6,350-foot runway, or 1,350 more feet over the 5,000-foot threshold for funding, port officials said Saturday.
The FAA had considered cutting the airport out of the program, which would have forced port officials to either reduce the runway to 3,850 feet or foot the bill to maintain the other 1,350 feet using local funds.
Under the FAA’s decision, the port can apply for funding under the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program for 90 percent of the $5.5 million runway upgrade project on 5,000 feet of Runway 26.
Airport manager Jerry Ludke said Saturday another 5 percent of funding would come from the state Department of Transportation, leaving the port to pitch in about $275,000 for the $5.5 million upgrade, he said.
Budgeting discussions on the improvement project are likely in 2019, with construction likely in 2022, Ludke said.
But port officials say an additional 1,350 feet of runway must be upgraded at an additional estimated cost of $1.5 million, an expenditure not currently eligible for the same federal Airport Improvement Program, Ludke said.
Port Commission Chairwoman Colleen McAleer was cognizant of the future uncertainty for the entire runway though still happy with the FAA’s decision to fund most of the improvements.
“Our long-term goal is to get the full 6,350 feet back,” she said Saturday.
“But in the meantime, we dodged a bullet.”
McAleer said she did not know when the port would begin examining funding options for the additional 1,350 feet, which Ludke said could come when the port begins discussing funding for the 5,000-foot length.
That’s not far down the road, according to McAleer.
“I would guess we’ll be looking at that sooner rather than later,” she said.
“We’ll have to go back and do some analysis on what we would be buying if it’s a million and a half [dollars] or whatever that amount is, and what we’ll be getting if we invest in the runway.”
The FAA was ready to pull Fairchild’s eligibility for the funding after the airport fell far below the requirement of 500 annual airport operations by jet aircraft that are required for airports to apply for the AIP program.
One operation equals a touchdown and takeoff combined.
But McAleer said port Executive Director Karen Goschen was able to convince federal officials to take into account two additional factors.
One was the emergency medevac operations conducted at the airport that provide a lifesaving link between the North Olympic Peninsula and Puget Sound hospitals.
The other factor was the importance of having a landing field long enough for large emergency aircraft that would be vital during a catastrophic event such as a Cascadia Subduction earthquake.
According to the Washington Emergency Plan and Federal Emergency Management Agency, Fairchild International Airport is a piece of critical infrastructure vital to the government’s response to wildfires and earthquakes.
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, whose 6th Congressional District includes Clallam and Jefferson counties, also heralded the FAA’s action for economic reasons.
“Keeping the runway fully-funded will not only give emergency responders a vital lifeline to our region in an emergency, but also drive economic growth that will sustain skilled jobs in our region,” he said.
The 5,000 foot runway helps drive economic growth by permitting jets to land, McAleer said.
“It is a chicken and the egg issue,” she said.
“We need to have enough runway length to support our existing business as well any businesses that are thinking about expanding, and ones we want to attract.
“If we don’t maintain at least that runway length, it’s gong to harm our ability to grow the economy.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sequim Gazette Editor Michael Dashiell contributed to this report.