New airport plan puts off new runway, tinkers with existing infrastructure

Nathaniel Herz
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News A China Airlines Cargo plane takes off from Ted Stevens International Airport on Thursday October 11, 2007. 071011

Anchorage airport planners are putting off construction of a costly and controversial new runway as part of a new long-range plan, and will try to accommodate a projected increase in traffic by tinkering with existing infrastructure.

Under the latest version of the plan -- a draft of which was released this week -- Ted Stevens International Airport would upgrade its runways and connectors, adjust its scheme for takeoffs, and push some flights to Fairbanks before trying to build a new runway.

"It's incumbent upon responsible airport management, on responsible airline partners, to recognize that there might be a day when a project of that magnitude is justified," said Evan Pfahler, a consultant and project manager for the airport's master plan. "That day isn't today."

The draft plan, unveiled at a community meeting Thursday night, comes more than a year after the airport began studying its options for expansion. The scheme was produced after planners floated five alternatives last spring, which were analyzed by airport staff and presented to the public for feedback.

At the time, local residents and community activists raised concerns about noise that could result from new air traffic patterns, and about the potential for the new north-south runway to displace Point Woronzof Park and the popular coastal trail, which skirts the north and west edges of the airport.

The planners responded Thursday with a phased approach, which they said allows the airport to use elements of the five alternatives to accommodate the predicted rise in traffic.

The first two phases would improve existing runways and taxiways, as well as alter the airport's departure scheme to allow more takeoffs to the east, over the city. The third would attempt to lure some flights to Fairbanks with upgrades and financial incentives.

The new runway would be built as part of the fourth phase, "only if growth in traffic at Anchorage International Airport reaches the highest forecast levels," the planners said in their presentation Thursday.

Pfahler said at the meeting that the airport had adopted the phased plan -- with the new runway pushed into the future -- in response to community input. Some attendees said that they liked the approach, but others still had reservations, saying that the new runway should have been scrapped altogether.

"I was pretty disappointed to see that phase four was included in the master plan, given the number of public comments against it," said Nick Moe, the Southcentral organizer for the Alaska Center for the Environment and former candidate for Anchorage Assembly. "I think it should have been removed."

Though the airport has no immediate plans for a runway, it is still pursuing acquisition of city parkland in the near-term through a land swap, Airport Manager John Parrott said.

The city plans to explore the deal because it wants to guarantee access to other parkland currently on airport property, as well as to a snow dump, said Municipal Manager George Vakalis.

"The airport needs the land for expansion; we have some possibilities that might fit into their plans," Vakalis said in an interview, adding that he was "very cognizant" of the concerns about the Coastal Trail.

The city is planning to name a task force within the next few weeks that would help steer the negotiations, Vakalis said, and some members have already been appointed. He said the group would include members of the public, as well as airport and municipal staff.

If the airport does acquire the property, Parrott, the manager, said that there were no plans aside from the new runway that would impact the Point Woronzof Park land, or the Coastal Trail, though he added: "I can't say it couldn't happen."

The new plans also did not mollify all the attendees' concerns about noise, and the planners acknowledged that if the airport opts for the revised takeoff scheme, the results would have an impact on residents who live nearby.

Other citizens asked if the plan pointed to specific dates or numbers when each of the phases would go into effect, but officials said that wasn't the case. Pfahler, the project manager, said that the plan is designed to leave the airport with the flexibility to move between the phases if traffic levels go up, or to stick to the status quo if they don't -- though he did say that the elements in the plan's first two phases are likely to be adopted within the next 10 years.

"We really have to recognize that there is uncertainty," Pfahler said in an interview. "But that should at least be partly addressed by the airport continually communicating what it's doing with the public."

As evidence, Pfahler pointed to a draft communications plan developed by the airport, which calls, for example, for airport staffers to brief residents at monthly meetings of the three community councils adjacent to the airport.

Over the next few months, the airport will take additional public comments and share a revised version of the draft. A final report is due in December.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.


Airport master plan