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Federal support for RDU’s new runway for China flights may fall short, airport president says

RDU’s 25-year master plan includes new 10,000 foot runway

Raleigh-Durham International Airport President and CEO Michael Landguth talks about the plan for a new runway in a 2016 video outlining the airport authority's 25-year master plan, "Vision 2040."
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Raleigh-Durham International Airport President and CEO Michael Landguth talks about the plan for a new runway in a 2016 video outlining the airport authority's 25-year master plan, "Vision 2040."

Raleigh-Durham International Airport plans to replace its aging main runway in the coming years with a new parallel one that will be long enough to launch flights to the far side of the Earth.

RDU President and CEO Michael Landguth says he has expected that half or more of the runway’s estimated $350 million cost would be covered by the federal government, with the rest divided between the state and the airport.

But last fall, during a meeting at the Federal Aviation Administration’s regional office in Memphis, Landguth says FAA officials told him RDU should expect only about $35 million in federal money for the project, or about 10 percent.

If that prediction holds true, Landguth said, it would mean the airport and its customers likely would have to make up the difference. Because the FAA’s grant money largely comes from taxes on jet fuel and passenger tickets, Landguth reasons RDU travelers are entitled to get more of it back in support for their airport.

“We’ve already paid the taxes,” he said. “If we don’t get our fair share, then we have to pay again.”

The FAA helps rehab or build runways, terminals and other facilities through a program that makes hundreds of grants each year to airports of all sizes across the country. Among the 11 grants to North Carolina airports last year was one for nearly $12.6 million to help RDU rebuild a taxiway.

But Congress has kept funding for the grant program steady at $3.35 billion in recent years, and has authorized the same spending over the next five years, Landguth said. He said FAA officials told him not to expect more than $35 million for the runway because the demand for those grants far exceeds the available money.

“They point back to the fact that they’ve had only so much and that Congress has kept that spending flat,” he said.

The FAA could not respond to requests for comment because of the federal government shutdown.

RDU has been talking to the FAA about its plans for a new runway for several years. It’s a big part of the airport’s 25-year master plan that the federal agency approved in December 2017.

The 10,000-foot runway, on the west side of the airport in front of Terminal 2, is nearing the end of its useful life. In late 2016, the airport said its pavement engineers had recommended the runway be rebuilt within 3 to 5 years and that it had already replaced several concrete slabs that had deteriorated.

The airport chose to build a parallel replacement runway so it could keep its main one open during construction. And it plans to make it 1,500 feet longer so a large jet full of passengers, luggage and the extra fuel and provisions needed for a flight to Asia can take off in all weather conditions. The longer runway is key to RDU’s ambitions to persuade an airline to establish nonstop service from the Triangle to China by 2025. (The airport’s other runway is 7,500 feet long, too short for even trans-Atlantic flights.)

The FAA won’t commit to providing any money for the runway until the airport makes a formal request, and that won’t happen for another two or more years while environmental studies are being done, Landguth said. In the meantime, RDU officials plan to enlist the help of North Carolina politicians and business groups to make a case for more federal funding.

“The public has time to weigh in on this conversation,” he said.

The Regional Transportation Alliance, a program of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, will be happy to “articulate the importance” of RDU and the new runway to any level of government, said Joe Milazzo, its executive director. The airport’s main runway is crucial to the continued success of the region’s business community, Milazzo said, and extending it will ensure RDU can handle longer distance flights in the future.

“This is, in essence, the most important two miles of pavement in the region,” he said. “And we’d like it to be just a hair longer than two miles.”

Landguth shared his concerns about federal funding for the runway with the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority in December. He said the airport will begin trying to build support for more federal money later this year.

It will have the support of U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat whose district includes RDU and who will lead the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

“RDU provides tremendous economic benefits for the Triangle and remains a key asset for our region,” Price said in a statement Wednesday. “Replacement of their runway is a top priority, and I will continue working with RDU officials, the FAA, and my colleagues in Congress to provide robust funding for airport infrastructure improvements.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 19 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.

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