A frequently used secondary runway at the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport likely will be shortened when it is reconstructed to eliminate a safety hazard.
That's the message a Federal Aviation Administration official shared at the airport Thursday as plans take shape for the project, tentatively scheduled for next year.
Right now the safety zones of the airport's primary and secondary runways overlap. The FAA won't provide money for the runway rehabilitation project if that problem isn't eliminated, said Gary Gates, an FAA project engineer from Helena, Mont.
The only solutions are to reduce the length of the 5,100-foot secondary runway or realign it at a significantly higher cost, Gates said.
The length may not be the only change to the runway during the project. As it allocates its limited amount of money, the FAA can only help pay for 75 feet of width, instead of the existing 100 feet, Gates said.
Airport users are just beginning to size up how much the potential changes could affect their operations.
Some business jets or turbo props that routinely use the shorter runway couldn't land or take off from it if it were shorter because of FAA and manufacturers' guidelines, said Gary Peters, a heavy equipment dealer who is building an aviation museum at the airport's southside business park.
Often the secondary runway is the safest option for some types of smaller airplanes because of prevailing wind patterns, Peters said.
Reducing the runway width would make it less safe for aircraft that have wheels on the back instead of the front because pilots rely heavily on their peripheral vision in landing those planes, he said.
Among them are vintage airplanes, tanker planes used in agriculture and aircraft that work in the backcountry.
But given the airport's financial situation, getting the reconstruction completed within the FAA's parameters could be the best way to go, Peters said.
"We may want to forgo the width and the length, because frankly we don't have any money," he said.
The FAA puts a priority on maintaining secondary runways when the number of flights exceeds capacity or prevailing winds often make use of one of an airport's runways unsafe, Gates said.
Neither one of those issues is in play in Lewiston, though the FAA recognizes that about 75 percent of pilots use the secondary runway.
Corporate jets, agricultural aviation and vintage aircraft are in that majority.
A partnership could enable the airport to maintain the width, Gates said. The FAA would allow the Lewiston airport to find other money for 25 feet of width, and the FAA could still contribute about 94 percent of the funds for the 75 feet, he said.
That solution will likely carry a hefty price tag at a time when the Lewiston airport is about to take a huge financial hit. The estimate for the runway rehabilitation project at 75 feet is about $6 million, said Dave Mitchell, aviation services manager at T-O Engineers, a firm working with the Lewiston airport on the project.
Horizon Air has announced it is withdrawing its services entirely from Lewiston on Aug. 25, eliminating Boise and Seattle flights. That leaves SkyWest and its Salt Lake City routes as the only commercial passenger service in Lewiston. Passenger fees are the single largest source of money for the airport. Those fees were budgeted to be about $350,000 this year before the airport knew it was losing Horizon.
Airport officials will look at the numbers to see what the entity can contribute, Manager Stephanie Morgan said.
Keeping the runway's existing length is even less likely. The FAA won't participate in reconstruction if the safety hazard isn't addressed, Gates said.
Doing nothing on the secondary runway won't work either.
"It works fine now, but I don't know how much longer it will last. ... I don't think overlaying it is a good idea," Mitchell said.
Its surface was rated as very poor prior to the 2016-17 winter, a step ahead of a rating of serious, which is followed by failed or not usable, Mitchell said.
Snow and ice only accelerate the deterioration.
"When the airport tries to plow that runway, it causes damage," Mitchell said.
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