A plan to create an 8,000-foot runway with 1,000-foot safety overrun areas on each end at an estimated cost of $244 million has been identified as the preferred alternative for guiding future development at Charleston’s Yeager Airport on Thursday.
The plan was unveiled during a public meeting on the airport’s master plan update, a document that — if accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration in coming months — will become the template for airport runway, taxiway and parking apron improvements through the year 2037.
The preferred alternative is one of four short-listed proposals that been pared from eight earlier plans, each equipped with an assortment of options, by the Charleston airport’s staff and consulting engineers. All four of the short-listed proposals called for an 8,000-foot runway with a new approach lighting system (ALS) on the runway approach nearest downtown Charleston (Runway 5) and an upgraded ALS on the approach nearest Coonskin Park (Runway 23).
Alternative 4A, deemed to be the preferred option, would extend 2,578 feet into Coonskin Park, and have 1,000-foot safety overrun areas on each end of the runway, considered standard by the FAA for airports with commercial air service. The estimated cost for the preferred alternative is $244 million.
Among the rejected options, Alternative 4C would also extend 2,578 feet into Coonskin, but would make use of an EMAS bed on the 23 end of the runway creating a shorter, non-standard runway safety area on that end. Its estimated cost is $251 million.
Alternative 7A would extend 2,300 feet into Coonskin Park, have 1,000-foot runway safety areas on each end, and cost an estimated $240 million, while Alternative 7C would also extend 2,300 feet into Coonskin, but, like Alternative 4C, make use of an EMAS bed and non-standard runway safety area.
The alignments of 7A and 7C make it possible to avoid requiring the boarding gate nearest Runway 5 to be relocated, as would be the case with 4A and 4C, but cause more home buyouts and roadway closures to take place in the Runway Protection Zone (RPZ) along the final approach to Runway 5. Coonskin Park encompasses the RPZ for Runway 23.
Alternatives 4C and 7C were rejected in part because of the high costs associated with new EMAS installations.
Airport and parks officials maintain that Coonskin Park’s clubhouse, swimming pool, golf course, tennis courts and soccer stadium will not be affected by runway extension work. But visual aids displayed at Thursday’s meeting indicated that until a final plan is accepted by the FAA and an environmental review is completed, it will not be precisely known how much the remainder of the park would be affected by construction and fill work. Potentially, up to 20 picnic shelters and picnic sites, as much as 8,500 linear feet of roadway, and as many as 10 trails could be affected.
The master plan update assumes passenger boardings at Yeager will grow two percent annually from now through 2037 — about half the current growth rate. Under that scenario, about 287,000 boardings will take place in 2027, followed by about 313,000 in 2037. Yeager recorded 317,000 passenger boardings in 2005, when low-cost carrier Independence Airlines joined mainline carriers operating at the Charleston airport, and added six daily flights to its hub at Washington-Dulles International.
The update also assumes that commercial aircraft flying to and from Charleston will become larger, with more seat capacity, during that time frame, and thus have increased runway length requirements.
If the master plan is accepted by the FAA and full funding is not immediately available to build the runway-taxiway extension, the airport could opt to begin the project by extending the runway to 7,000 feet in a first phase, and building an additional 1,000 feet at a later date as funds become available.
The FAA’s Airport Improvement Program is expected to provide 90 percent of the funding needed. Another 5 percent could come from state sources, with the remainder provided by Yeager, possibly through user fees.
An environmental review for the project is expected to get underway this summer, according to Nick Keller, Yeager’s executive director. If the FAA determines that a full environmental impact statement is needed for the project to proceed, it would take at least two years to complete, followed by another year or so of design work. Requiring an environmental assessment, rather than an environmental impact statement, would speed up the time until groundbreaking by about six months.
“We are probably looking at at least three or four years before construction could begin,” Keller said.