The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority began lining up contractors to replace its longest runway Thursday in the hopes of speeding up work once it receives federal approval.
The 10,000-foot runway, known as 5L-23R, which is on the western side of the airport, opened in 1986. Now, airport officials say, the 30-year-old runway needs to be replaced in the next three to five years before it reaches the end of its useful life.
The airport plans to build a new runway just to the west of the old one, but work can’t begin until the Federal Aviation Administration approves the airport’s 25-year master plan, called Vision 2040, which the airport authority supported in October. That approval is needed to receive federal funding for the project.
So at Thursday’s meeting, the eight-person board instructed staff to move forward with negotiations with the top design candidate, Colorado-based engineering company CH2M Hill. A formal agreement will return to the board at a later date.
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The board also approved entering into a contract with California-based Parsons Transportation Group to manage the more than $350 million runway and other projects on the master plan that will be completed in the coming years, including a consolidated rental car facility.
“Even though the Vision 2040 is still with the FAA for approval of the layout plan, we are still moving forward to go ahead and be ready,” RDU spokesman Andrew Sawyer said.
The FAA’s master plan approval process can sometimes be lengthy. But Sawyer said the FAA is aware of the airport’s need for a new runway, and RDU officials anticipate the agency will approve the plan this spring.
“We’re on track,” Sawyer said. “We’re right where we thought we would be on that. (The board) just wants to get ready so that when we get that approval we can move forward.”
The runway handles some of the airport’s 400 daily flights, including all of its flights to the west coast and overseas. Some of those flights, including those to London and Paris, will soon be upgraded to larger planes to accommodate a growing number of passengers.
The runway will be built parallel to the existing one, which will be turned into a taxiway. There is no set timeline for when construction will begin or how long it will take, at least until RDU receives the nod from the FAA, Sawyer said.
Funding sources for the runway project will be laid out in a financial model and implementation plan that RDU is expected to present to the public this spring. It could be funded through federal and state revenues or grants or airport revenues, such as parking and landing fees.
Another factor that may affect the old runway’s lifespan is a chemical process called an alkali-silica reaction that is causing the underlying concrete of the runway to crack. It’s the same chemical reaction that caused Interstate 40 in Raleigh to crumble, resulting in the N.C. Department of Transportation’s three-year repair project.
Airport staff became aware of the reaction in 2003 and have been monitoring it since. But replacement was not deemed necessary until a pavement analysis was done during the 18-month master planning process, Sawyer said.
If the useful life of the runway were to end before a new one is built, the airport would have only one commercial runway, and at 7,500 feet, it isn’t long enough to accommodate transatlantic or transcontinental flights.
A new runway also would be needed if the airport hopes to attract a flight to China, which Michael Landguth, RDU’s president and CEO, has said could be on the horizon as soon as 2019.
In the meantime, the runway continues to be inspected multiple times per day as part of routine operations, Sawyer said.
“Any pavement issues that get noticed are dealt with right away,” he said. “The safety of our runways is paramount.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon