There's no easy way-or good time-to shut down an airport for three weeks, especially a regional hub that serves as a major tourism gateway. But officials at Redmond Municipal Airport (RDM) pulled it off with nary a hitch during a recent $18.5 million runway reconstruction project.
The central Oregon airport (also known as Roberts Field) was closed from May 2 through 22 while construction crews worked 24 hours a day to rebuild the intersection where RDM's 7,038-foot-long main runway crosses its 7,006-foot-long secondary runway. Closure was the only option, given the airport's somewhat unusual X-shaped runway configuration. Crews performed other work on the main runway during nights before and after the closure period.
"On a scale of one to 10, this project definitely was a 10," reflects Airport Director Zachary Bass. "It kind of kept me up at night, wondering what would happen if we didn't finish in 21 days."
Project: Rebuilding Main Runway
Location: Redmond (OR) Municipal Airport
2015 Passenger Volume: 291,000
Est. Project Cost: $18.5 million
Funding: $17.3 million from FAA; $1.2 million from state lottery program
Main Project Components: Full-depth reconstruction of asphalt runway; grooving; drainage improvements; new high-intensity runway lights
Key Benefit: Enhanced safety
Project Design/Management: Century West Engineering
Phase 1 Prime Contractor: High Desert Aggregate & Paving
Phase 2 Prime Contractor: Knife River Corp. Northwest
Runway Lighting Supplier: ADB Airfield Solutions
Runway Lighting Contractor: Tomco Electric
Primary Goals: Improve runway safety; minimize regional impact of 3-week closure; communicate effectively with wide range of stakeholders
Century West Engineering, which designed and managed the project, worked diligently to prevent that from happening. "It's fairly unusual to see an airport closed for this long," notes says Tom Headley, the company's project manager at RDM. "But that was driven by the magnitude of work required in that intersection."
Given the high stakes, it's no wonder Bass had trouble sleeping. Ramifications of the two-phase runway project reached far beyond the airport grounds. With approximately 291,000 passengers per year, RDM is a key player in the region's economy and a gateway for tourists visiting central Oregon. (About 3.1 million people visited the region this past season alone.) In addition, RDM is the only commercial airport for approximately 135 miles. There are six other smaller airports in the region, including Bend Municipal Airport about 16 miles away, but all are strictly general aviation facilities.
Furthermore, RDM is home to one of the larger U.S. Forest Service bases in the western United States. The base is an important staging point for aircraft used to fight forest fires, notes Bass.
On a micro level, airport officials estimate that the project canceled 2,595 scheduled flight operations-airliners and freight aircraft-and prevented the arrival and departure of about 20,000 passengers. The airport consequently lost about $270,000 in revenue, mostly through decreased concessions sales, passenger facilities charges and fees for rental cars and parking.
On the plus side, the project required no funding from the airport. The FAA kicked in about $17.3 million, and the balance was paid for with proceeds from Connect Oregon, a state-lottery backed initiative that pays for transportation infrastructure improvements.
Completing the project on time and without major issues attests to the value of thorough planning with contractors and a comprehensive communication program, notes Bass. Key groups that needed to be kept in the loop included the FAA, airlines, regional tourism and transportation officials, municipal and business leaders, general public-and everyone in between, he quips.
"There were a lot of stakeholders involved," Bass reflects. "But during the reconstruction, we heard from only six travelers who were surprised to learn that the airport was closed...so we believe our community outreach efforts were very successful."
Change of Plans
When planning for the project began about 2 1/2 years ago, closing the airport wasn't even a consideration. The main runway-which was at the end of its 20-year lifecycle and exhibiting longitudinal and transverse cracking-was thought to be a good candidate for a "grind and overlay" surface reconstruction. "That involves grinding off 4 inches of asphalt pavement (about half the total runway depth) and replacing it with new asphalt," Headley explains.
But that assessment changed when engineering studies revealed that the runway's longitudinal and cross-slope profiles did not meet current FAA design standards. "It wasn't unsafe or failed pavement; the existing grades were adequate for their use," explains Headley. "But they didn't comply with newer FAA design standards."
The airport then faced three choices: Obtain a waiver of standards from the FAA; perform a hybrid "best-fit" repair that would meet current standards without a full reconstruction; or perform a full reconstruction to bring the runway up to FAA standards. RDM officials chose a full reconstruction because the FAA was unlikely to fund an option that did not fully comply with current standards, Bass says.
The airport opted to schedule its closure in May for several reasons. First, it was the most likely time for weather conditions conducive with paving operations. Second, airport officials wanted to mitigate any impact on firefighting efforts during the peak of forest fire season, which generally runs from as early as June to September. Furthermore, they wanted to minimize disruptions during tourist season, which peaks in June, July and August.
The FAA divided the project into two phases to spread out costs for the large, expensive initiative. During the first phase, High Desert Aggregate & Paving rebuilt about 1,400 feet of the main runway's southern leg. Work ran from September through November in 2014, then began again in March 2015 and concluded in April, with the airport remaining open throughout.
"Fortunately, the physical layout/topography of the airport created optimal conditions for a two-phase project," Headley points out. "A slight rise in the runway formed a perfect tie-in point between the two phases...it created a very smooth match between the existing (second) runway grades and the new runway's pavement.
"That was significant, because the new grades raised the centerline elevation of the runway nearly 3 feet in some areas," he continues. "But at this location, there was a smooth match point. Without that, the duration of the second phase would've been longer."
Knife River Corp. Northwest served as prime contractor for repaving operations during the second phase. The most critical part of the project was rebuilding the intersection, which required 24,000 tons of asphalt and 8,700 cubic yards of crushed rock. Overall, the second phase lasted roughly four months and required 75,000 tons of asphalt.
The intersection work essentially became a separate project within the larger project, because design engineers and paving crews had to contend with correctly melding the centerline rise in the new runway with the secondary runway. "We had to soften the rise for a compliant distance-bring it up gently to come up and over the main runway," he explains. "You can't put a 3-foot-high speed bump in the middle of another runway."
Conveying to stakeholders why that was so important proved to be yet another project within the larger project, adds Headley. "The intersection had its own pre-construction meetings and construction schedule," he notes.
Looking ahead, the secondary runway will require reconstruction in a few years. To minimize disruptions at that point, the airport rebuilt about 1,400 feet of the secondary runway-an area that extends beyond the portion where the two runways intersect-during the recent project.
As such, a full reconstruction of the other runway will not require a prolonged airport closure, Headley points out. "In a sense, we pulled out all the stitches at one time...so we don't have to revisit this kind of major disruption again," he says.
Communication was Critical
Beyond the engineering and execution of the intersection work, a comprehensive communications program proved to be one of the project's most important components. To mitigate the project's impact on regional businesses and tourism, the airport created a 13-member task force that included representatives from "high-reach" organizations such as regional tourism bureaus, hotels and resorts, chambers of commerce, businesses and municipalities. With help from the task force, RDM orchestrated mass emails and press releases to communicate key messages and details about the project.
"We sent mass emails periodically to task force members, such as the Central Oregon Business Association, the Bend and Redmond chambers of commerce, the Central Oregon Visitors Association and the Bend Visitor & Convention Bureau," Bass explains. "Then those groups, in turn, forwarded the emails to all their members. It was a trickle-down effort to get the word out to as many people and parties as possible."
RDM kept the general public apprised by posting information and project updates on its website. Task force members also used their websites to enhance community-outreach efforts. In addition, the airport tried to attract media coverage on a monthly basis. "Media interest was not a problem," Bass reflects. "It was a big story, so news organizations were happy to come out and do stories about it." The year before work began, Bass gave presentations about the project to various task force organizations.
Cooperation and communication with the airport's commercial airlines also was critical. More than one year before the project began, officials contacted carriers and urged them to not accept RDM ticket bookings during the planned construction period. Because airport projects are notoriously beset by delays, Bass says it was sometimes difficult to get carriers to believe RDM's construction would proceed as scheduled. "But we overcame that with continual contact for months and months," he says. "We created a list of the appropriate contact people at each airline and relied on emails and phone calls. They started blocking out ticket sales about nine months ahead of time."
Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines were among the carriers that were affected.
Keeping It Positive
With work crews busy on the airfield, RDM made constructive use of its downtime with a variety of landside projects. "An airport is rarely closed for three weeks, so we made the best of it," Bass recalls. "We made lemonade out of lemons-took a bad situation and made it as positive as we could for central Oregon."
During the closure, RDM performed in-depth cleaning and maintenance throughout the terminal, built a new children's play area and updated a kitchen exhaust hood. Outside, crews sealed cracks in the parking lot and on a lane used by taxis, applying a total of 15,000 pounds of pavement sealant.
The airport also took the opportunity to hold two large events. One was an economic development luncheon for about 250 attendees, which offered a prime opportunity to highlight RDM's importance to the regional economy. RDM also hosted five days of "active shooter" drills, which provided crucial training for 200 local police officers, 80 firefighters and 50 emergency medical technicians.
"We're one of largest public places in central Oregon, so the airport is a great place to practice those kinds of live action drills, which we could never do with the TSA present (during normal operations)," Bass explains. "It was a weird environment for a week-lots of fake screams and gunshots. We pushed that out to the media, too, so it allowed us to keep spreading the message that the airport was closed."
What advice would Bass offer to other airports facing closures? "Start planning early, and bring the right people to the table," he suggests. "Make sure all stakeholders are aware of what's happening well ahead of time."
"Effective communication that comes early and consistently is the most critical component," Headley emphasizes. "You can't just tell all the parties early on what's going to happen and then walk away. You have to start talking early and keep on talking.
"You also must decide who needs to be at the table, especially when this many people and businesses are affected by work at a significant regional aviation hub," he adds. "We took it upon ourselves to ensure that the proper people were invited to the planning process...there was a lot of forward thinking on the part of the airport to make this project work."