A 25-year master plan that will guide growth at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport through 2040 moved forward Thursday despite protests from area hikers and cyclists.
Claps arose from the audience of more than 100 people after the RDU Board of Directors unanimously approved the plan, but so did boos from outdoor enthusiasts, who are pushing to preserve more than 600 acres of the airport’s property to be used for an urban trails center.
The master plan, which lays out potential development of the airport’s core and surrounding land, still needs to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration before shovels can go in the ground. Airport representatives say the process will take at least six months.
Local hikers and cyclists, including members of the Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and the Umstead Coalition, say they fear that the plan will develop as approved with a quarry next to William B. Umstead State Park and a hotel or office park where miles of hiking and biking trails already exist at Lake Crabtree County Park.
They are championing a solution that calls for the 600 acres to be used for more than 50 miles of trails and supporting commercial uses, such as bike shops, campgrounds and restaurants.
On Thursday, board discussion regarding the plan lasted only a few minutes, with several board members praising the plan and encouraging continued talks with Wake County about leasing a portion of airport property north of Interstate 40 at fair-market value for recreational use.
“I remain optimistic that something can be worked out to create a win-win situation for everyone,” board member Robert Teer said.
But some, including Raleigh cyclist Natalie Lew, were disappointed that the staff and board members focused almost entirely on the airport’s core and that there was little discussion about the future of the surrounding land, particularly the acres that would be needed for a possible urban trails center, which exceeds what is being discussed with Wake County.
“I’m not too impressed,” she said.
The airport authority must create this plan according to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, but RDU representatives described the master plan as “flexible” and said it could be changed as new conditions present themselves.
For example, the last master plan the airport authority created, which was approved in 1994, showed a third parallel runway that was never built.
“There are things that get put on master plans that never get built,” said Michael Landguth, president and CEO of RDU.
Rebuilding a runway
Kristie VanAuken, RDU’s vice president of communications and community affairs, said the airport’s main focus is rebuilding a runway and making it possible to add up to 23 new gates as needed in the next 25 years.
RDU representatives expect they will need to rebuild the airport’s longest runway in the next three to five years, and the necessary federal funding to do so is contingent on the FAA’s approval of the 25-year master plan.
Landguth said if the useful life of that runway were to end before a new one is constructed, it would bring the airport down to only one commercial service runway – one that isn’t long enough to accommodate transatlantic or transcontinental service.
A rebuilt runway also would be needed if the airport hopes to attract a flight to China, which Landguth believes is on the horizon, likely as soon as 2019.
“We’ve got to have a 10,000-foot runway as a minimum in order to make that pitch,” he said.
But the airport will face challenges in finding the funds; the airport is mostly self-sustaining and receives only $550,000 in federal and state grants every year.
The projects could be funded by allowing development on the surrounding airport land.
“We’ve actually seen a lot of really exciting ideas,” VanAuken said. “What we want to see now are some numbers on paper, get some people who are interested in funding those innovative ideas so we can move forward with a plan that can support our core aviation infrastructure.”
But Apex resident Dave Anderson said he supports finding other sources of funding rather than developing on existing recreational land.
“If the airport is short on revenue, let’s fill that some other way,” he said. “Let’s not fill it by the airport being in the land development business.”
Now that the RDU board has approved the master plan, airport representatives and consultants will return to the public in about 60 to 90 days with a financial model and implementation plan before submitting the materials to the FAA.
While the FAA approval process will take a minimum of six months after the plan has been submitted, most cases of development would require an environmental study, Landguth said, which could take one year to five years before development can begin.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608, @KTrogdon