New Runway for Tucson International Airport

$327 Million Project to Add Safety, Reliability

By Jay Gonzales

Projects like the $327 million Tucson International Airport runway safety enhancement project don’t come around very often.

Over the next five years, the massive Airfield Safety Enhancement Project will demolish an existing runway and relocate and reconstruct a new parallel runway to meet FAA updated safety and standards, with an added benefit of greater efficiency for incoming and outgoing aircraft.

The project, which broke ground in October, will generate an estimated 2,700 construction and trade jobs using a number of contractors. It comes at a time of intense economic pressure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It would be very easy to say we had better stop or we should not move forward because of the uncertainty in the world,” said Danette Bewley, president and CEO of the Tucson Airport Authority, which operates the airport system that includes Tucson International Airport and Ryan Airfield. Bewley was named president in December 2019 after serving as VP of operations and COO since 2012.

“We said no, we have the federal funding set up and we need to get this project done no matter what to ensure airfield safety. In addition, those are people’s jobs down there. Those are people’s lives. They have rent, they have mortgages, they have families to feed, and we take that seriously as a community partner.”

The project has been through the planning, environmental and design stages for 10 years, which Bewley said is standard for a project like this to come to fruition, considering the funding challenges and the federal approvals needed for most airport infrastructure projects.

“Since the majority of our funds are coming from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), we have a lot of different hoops to jump through,” Bewley said. “This was a complicated project because of the size and scale and scope of it. It involved a lot of other players outside of the TAA.”

The FAA, Arizona Department of Transportation, Pima County, the City of Tucson, the U.S. Air Force, the Arizona Air National Guard, airlines that use the airport, and Raytheon Missiles & Defense were all part of the planning and coordination process, Bewley said.

“All of these partners had to come together with the FAA to identify the safety and standards measures, the ‘why’ of the project, and discuss how these changes impact all of the stakeholders and other government agencies,” Bewley said.

The primary “why” is safety, said Mike Smejkal, VP of planning and engineering for Tucson Airport Authority.

The centerpiece of the project is a new parallel runway, which will be the same size as the existing main runway used by all aircraft that land and take off from the airport. There will be new taxiways and other safety enhancements in the overall construction which is broken down into four projects.

The new parallel runway means that when an issue disrupts traffic on one runway – for instance, when a landing aircraft gets a flat tire or has other trouble – the other runway will be available to prevent interruption and allow for the continuity of operation. In addition, one safety issue at TUS has been “runway incursions,” when an aircraft mistakenly taxis onto a runway or lands on a runway or the wrong runway without FAA authorization, which causes a safety issue and disruption to the normal operation of the airfield.

“Most of the time the incidents are fairly minor, but you can have an aircraft blow a tire and the runway would be down for 30 or 40 minutes,” Smejkal said. “It always seems to happen on a Friday afternoon and during the heavy departure block. The new parallel runway included in the ASE Project will make TUS a safer and more reliable airport for our commercial and business operators.”

Smejkal said there are 30 companies or organizations that are part of the construction and design team. Opportunity for work is being spread out across the community, bringing welcome jobs and business for the next five years.

“Once we start bidding more of the work, that contractor and subcontractor community will get even larger,” Smejkal said. “I think by the time this project is done, probably every contractor that does any sort of heavy civil work will have worked on a portion of this project.”

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