Thursday, February 07, 2013

Ann Arbor Municipal Airport (KARB), Michigan: Turbulent ride continues for proposed runway expansion

Pittsfield Township continues to fight for a say in a long-discussed lengthening of the main runway at the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport that its authorities are claiming is necessary for safety upgrades. 

The airport is located southwest of the South State and Ellsworth intersection in Pittsfield Township -- a burgeoning corridor that's seen major development in the past 25 years.

Plans to shift the 3,505-foot-long runway 950 feet further to the southwest corner of the city-owned airport property would not go before the township’s planning commission, leaving the township out of the discussion. The airport property had been annexed by the city of Ann Arbor before Pittsfield became a chartered township in 1972. 

In response, Pittsfield Township and a citizen group have petitioned the federal government to block the expansion of the runway and to mandate the city of Ann Arbor to include the township in the planning process. 

Though the idea was first floated before the Ann Arbor City Council in 2007, progress has been slow as formal guidance on the environmental assessment from the Federal Aviation Administration and final approval from the Michigan Department of Transportation have not yet been turned around. 

However, even when airport authorities receive the final rubber stamp on the environmental assessment from the state, they may find it difficult to get the expansion plans past the Ann Arbor City Council. 

The airport

The Ann Arbor Municipal Airport is a class B-II airport and was built in 1928. Though there have been different iterations of the runway, the most recent configuration of a 3,505-foot-long, 75-foot-wide paved runway has been in use for the past 40 to 50 years. 

 A separate grass runway at the airport that intersects the paved one and is used during the summertime. There are about 160 hangars in use at the airport and about half a dozen vacancies.
The airport had 64,000 takeoffs and landings in 2012. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the airport had about 125,000 takeoffs and landings per year. 

Small corporate and private planes are housed at the general aviation airport, which does not have any scheduled passenger or cargo service. A number of planes transporting patients destined for care at the University of Michigan Health System also frequent the airport. 

UMHS keeps its Survival Flight helicopters at the airport, though it's not able to house its Survival Flight jet there because of the short runway and the lack of 24-hour control tower staff, said Kara Gavin, spokeswoman for UMHS.

Three rental car agencies are situated at the airport, as well as several flight schools. It’s four miles -- or an 11-minute drive -- from downtown Ann Arbor. 

The airport has an $800,000 annual budget and runs on the profits it makes from renting hangars and from a small fuel surcharge, requiring no funding allocation from the city. It is staffed by a handful of city employees who conduct maintenance operations and clear the runway. Matt Kulhanek, the city's airport manager, is the only administrator at the airport and does that job in addition to other duties he has with the city. 

Pittsfield Township provides police and fire coverage to the airport when necessary. The FAA funds the 20-person control tower staff. 

The expansion

“In 2007 we were updating our airport layout plan and council inquired and asked if we had addressed everything from a safety perspective,” Kulhanek said. 

In the airport’s opinion, the layout didn’t address certain safety issues, and so they asked for an extension of the runway to 4,300 feet. The extension is in line with the state’s master plan for the Ann Arbor airport, Kulhanek said. 

Kulhanek said there’s a blind spot on the runway at the northeast end where the control tower can’t see the plans in the taxi lanes waiting to take off. 

The proposed project would extend the runway 950 feet on the southern end and take 150 feet off of the northern end, for an overall extension of 800 feet. The shift would eliminate the blind spot for the control tower, Kulhanek said, and still be half a mile from Lohr Road. 

Planes landing on the runway have run off the end of the pavement into the dirt, Kulhanek said. Though no severe injuries of pilot or crew have resulted, the potential for major damage is there. Extending the runway would reduce that risk, Kulhanek said. 

The extension to a 4,300-long-runway would still keep the Ann Arbor airport as a class B-II airport, Kulhanek said. 

Some aircraft that use the runway now have to operate under restrictions in order to take off on the short runway, including taking off with less fuel and/or less passengers. Several C-I aircraft already make use of the runway, but operate under like restrictions, Kulhanek said. 

The extension of the runway would mean B-II aircraft could operate without restrictions, Kulhanek said. 

“We’re not going to see (C-I aircraft) on a regular basis,” Kulhanek said. “800 feet is almost nothing; 4,300 is still a relatively short runway for a jet.” 

A longer runway would make the area accessible to more small corporate jets, which often have insurance contingencies for how long a runway has to be in order to land a plane there, Kulhanek said. 

 Some corporate pilots stipulate that a margin of 20 percent of a runway beyond what is needed to safely land a plan is necessary. Kulhanek said the Ann Arbor airport’s 3,505-foot-long runway is not long enough for some planes that need that margin, and so they land elsewhere. 

Kulhanek said the airport is not equipped with instrument landing systems that some corporate jets need to land and take off. 

Not expanding the runway is a bad business decision, said Dr. Don Musinski, flight instructor for Solo Aviation. The company is located at the Ann Arbor airport. 

The airport is losing some corporate business because of the delayed runway expansion, Musinski said. The loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the city, but it hurts the airport, Musinski said. 

The shift of the runway to the southwest corner of the airport property is also important for future plans Pittsfield Township has to expand State Road south of the intersection with Ellsworth Road. The widening of the road from two lanes to four lanes is not possible with the airport's runway where it is now, Kulhanek said. 

The city of Ann Arbor owns the mostly vacant wetland property on the east side of State Road across from the airport because of landing lights needed for the runway. 

For the project to move forward, an environmental assessment of the airport was conducted between 2009 and 2010, and it was submitted to the FAA for comment in the fall of 2010. Airport authorities did not receive the report back until 11 months later in the fall of 2011, Kulhanek said. 

In the spring of 2012, Kulhanek learned that another department in the FAA had to additionally review the environmental assessment -- which was submitted to them in September 2012. Airport authorities are waiting for the final approval of the environmental assessment from the state before approaching the Ann Arbor City Council with plans and requesting funding. 

As structured now, the runway expansion would cost about $1.9 million and be paid for with ticket surcharge fees, Kulhanek said. The state would be responsible for $96,000 of the cost and the city would be responsible for $96,000. The remainder and largest portion would be paid for with federal funds. 

The city has already approved about $400,000 for the environmental assessment. The most recent payment was approved in August. 

The local match for the money in both the environmental assessment and for the proposed project comes from fees on tickets, Kulhanek said. 

Pittsfield's petition 

The Ann Arbor Municipal Airport is surrounded by commercial properties to the north, a wetland to the east, an office park and subdivision to the south and another residential subdivision to the west. 

Pittsfield Township resident Andy McGill has lived in the Stonebridge subdivision that’s adjacent to the airport off of Lohr Road for the past seven years. He’s now the voice of the citizen group made up of about 400 residents from Pittsfield and Lodi townships, as well as Saline and Ann Arbor. 

McGill said he was told when he moved into his house that the airport would never expand. 

He’s concerned about the possibility of larger, heavier jets landing at the airport with a longer runway, and the possibility that planes would come even closer to the subdivision on Lohr Road when they take off and land. 

There are environmental concerns at the airport as well that were noted in the petition, McGill said. Several wells at the airport provide Ann Arbor’s Water Treatment Plant with about 15 percent of its overall supply, and McGill said he thinks more study needs to be done on the location and safety of the wells from jet fuel spills. 

“It’s our view that the rights of the people of Pittsfield have really been overlooked in this case,” McGill said. “We love the airport as a small airport; we just don’t think it should become a bigger airport that’s attractive to larger, heavier jets.” 

Pittsfield Township and the citizen group, the Committee for Preserving Community Quality, have hired a lawyer that specializes in airport issues. 

Steven Taber of Taber Law Group PC in California wrote the petition to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and is representing the township and the citizen group in the case.

Should the U.S. Transportation Secretary not responds to requests made in the petition, Pittsfield Township Supervisor Mandy Grewal said the township will continue to hold its position and exhaust its options. 

The petition requests that the federal government makes a response within 180 days from the Jan. 28 filing. 

“We’ll hold our position that we’ve held previously,” Grewal said.

The township and the city signed an agreement in 2009 that pertained to new buildings at the airport, but it did not give the township the authority it wants in this situation, Grewal said. 

Ann Arbor's position

The city of Ann Arbor has no plans to significantly change operations at the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport, officials said. 

“I don’t think City Council has any interest in expanding the runway,” Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje said. 

Hieftje said a similar expansion proposal was introduced to City Council in the 1980s and it was not supported. 

“The big fear is that larger planes would come in,” Hieftje said. “(The Ann Arbor airport) is a nice little airport. It’s a nice, little, fairly busy airport for a city our size. … There’s underutilized capacity a few miles away in Willow Run.” 


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