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WV leaders credit teamwork with bringing home Yeager rebuilding funds

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail
Airport director Terry Sayre tries to do an interview while a regional jet comes in for a landing above him.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper talks about the county receiving $13.5 million for fixing the end of the runway at Yeager Airport.

With a low, rocky embankment marking the end of Yeager Airport’s collapsed safety overrun area serving as a backdrop, members of the Charleston airport’s governing board convened a special open-air meeting on Monday to accept a $13.5 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration that will launch the first of two construction projects to restore an engineered materials arresting system (EMAS) at the south end of the airport’s runway.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation joined county, city and state officials and airport administrators in a ceremony preceding the meeting, during which they reflected on the cooperation needed to prevail over the daunting task of acquiring the funds needed to rebuild the safety zone after 540,000 cubic yards of it slid off a hillside and across Keystone Drive in March 2015.

The airport board and county commission “could have said, ‘Oh, well, we don’t have the finances,’” and given up on the effort to rebuild the safety zone, said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Instead, Manchin said, they made it known to federal officials and members of the Congressional delegation how important it was not just to Charleston and Kanawha County, but to the state, that the safety zone be restored.

“Cooperation by elected officials doesn’t happen without a reason for it to happen,” Manchin said. “We work together well when the issue is not about politics but about the good of the State of West Virginia.”

“It was a collective effort,” said Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., who engineered an agreement with Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to insert language in the omnibus spending bill overriding a restriction on using federal disaster aid money to pay for rebuilding Yeager’s EMAS bed. In a matter involving the state’s transportation infrastructure and public safety, “you don’t pay attention to party or district lines,” said Jenkins.

“We can all work together for something that is very important to the state,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

“We were told Yeager was not eligible for replacement of its EMAS, but we decided not to take no for an answer,” said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper.

Yeager Airport Director Terry Sayre thanked the congressional delegation for their perseverance in pursuing federal funding to rebuild the safety zone. “It took us two and a half years to clear Keystone Drive and get the funds to start rebuilding, but now we’re ready to start.”

The $13.5 million grant will pay to design the safety overrun rebuild, prepare the required pre-construction environmental studies; build a retaining wall on an existing terrace off the south end of what remains of the safety overrun area to add enough runway-level fill to accommodate a 352-foot EMAS bed; and order the EMAS blocks, delivery of which is now backlogged for nearly one year, according to Sayre.

About 70,000 cubic yards of fill removed from the collapsed safety zone, now stockpiled on airport property, will be recycled for use in supporting the new EMAS bed.

Sayre said core drilling work on the project could begin within the next two weeks. After that, “construction will begin as soon as it possibly can,” he said. “We’re anxious to get back to normal.”

Loss of the previous EMAS bed required the airport to close a 500-foot section of runway to air traffic to serve as a temporary safety overrun area, reducing the space available for takeoffs and landings.

A second and final phase of construction, which Sayre said would cost an additional $8 million to $9 million, would pay to add fill behind the retaining wall, install the EMAS bed, and replace and upgrade navigation aids at the south end of the runway.

The EMAS system makes use of blocks of materials specially designed to break down under the weight of an airplane, bringing it to a stop much in the same way that crushed rock escape ramps along steep freeway grades bring trucks with failing brakes to a stop. In January 2010, Yeager’s EMAS bed brought a regional jet with 34 people aboard to a safe stop following an aborted takeoff attempt.

Having the EMAS area restored “will let us continue to attract the carriers we need to bring people to the state of West Virginia,” Manchin said.

In other news regarding the Charleston airport on Monday, Yeager officials announced the settlement of one undisclosed portion of a lawsuit against Triad Engineering, which designed the engineered fill area supporting the former EMAS bed that collapsed in the March 2015 landslide.

The $900,000 settlement netted the Charleston airport $180,876 after legal expenses and fees were deducted, according to Ed Hill, president of Yeager’s governing board.

Attorneys Scott Segal, Anthony Majestro and Tim Bailey, working on a contingency basis for the airport, incurred and fronted nearly $450,000 in expenses by hiring consulting engineers, deposing expert witnesses and performing other tasks, Hill said. The attorneys collected a total of $270,000 in legal fees, after waiving five percent of the 35 percent recovery fee called for in their contract with the airport.

“It was a relatively minor settlement, but it involved a time-intensive, very expensive process dealing with complex issues worked out by our counsel and attorneys for Triad,” Hill said, “But it allows litigation to proceed.”

“The airport has myriad claims against Triad, and we’ve settled a certain discrete claim” against the engineering firm, Segal said after a subcommittee of Yeager’s governing board approved the settlement. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“We look forward down the road to a much higher amount of settlement money,” said Hill. Depositions taken by expert witnesses by the three attorneys would be available for use in other phases of the lawsuit, he added.

Hill predicted that it would take until late next year or early 2019 for a complete resolution of Yeager’s pending lawsuits to occur.

Reach Rick Steelhammer, 304-348-5169, or Follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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