The state Department of Transportation, contracting with Knik Construction, broke ground this past spring on the hub village of Aniak’s new runway, a project long in the making.
The project is currently in the excavation phase, while the airport's operations have continued undisturbed from construction. A rock pit has been dug, and soon DOT will bring in concrete mix materials to pave the new runway.
The project’s initial manager and designer Morgan Merritt said that while some in the community would rather have stayed with the current situation, new construction was necessary for both cost and safety reasons. The old runway's paving conditions drove up maintenance costs, and federal authorities are requiring more space along the runways be left clear for safety.
“The safety of the separation distances and the possibility of accident,” said Merritt.
The Federal Aviation Administration wants runways to have what they call "safety areas."
“If an aircraft on approach has a navigational or mechanical problem,” Merritt said, “it’s been shown that statistically aircraft will land accidentally left or right of the runway, and that’s why the FAA has established runway safety areas and object-free areas.”
Merritt says that the FAA is covering much of the cost for the new runway project, $53.6 million of which is covered by federal grants and $3.6 million by the state of Alaska.
The inconveniences so far have been with traffic and dust, which Knik Construction, DOT, and the City of Aniak have been attending to. Kevin Toothaker, Aniak’s City Manager, says that most of the traffic is due to travel to and from the new gravel pit. He adds that some buildings have already been demolished and trees have been cut in order to move Aniak’s sewer main, part of the overall project redesign.
“They cut off one of the roads; one of the ways to get to new housing and stuff through the west side of the airport is blocked off right now while they redo the sewer,” said Toothaker. “I think it’s been kinda going smoothly for the most part - a lot of dust, but Knik runs their water truck to help keep the dust down.”
Overall, the community of Aniak has pulled together regardless of any doubts they might have about the project, says Toothaker. People help during planned and unplanned power and sewer outages. This included the Kuspuk School District providing power to those needing it, and the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation providing access to power and water off their well and generator as needed.
Business organizations like YKHC have come together as an informal group, letting people know what services are available to them throughout the construction period.
“Working together with anything that comes our way because we are out here on the island, we are our own help, so that’s why we’ve pooled together to address a lot of things that have come up in Aniak and that’s just our plan moving forward,” said Kimberly Madden, YKHC’s Operations Manager in Aniak. “So far it’s worked out really well.”
Morgan Merritt says that the new runway will actually be narrower than the existing one, but longer. It is already more than a mile long.
“At present it’s 150 wide by 6,000 feet long. After the construction, the shifted runway will be 100 feet wide and 6,200 feet long. So it’s narrower, but longer as far as takeoff lengths,” Merritt said.
But landing lengths will actually be shorter, which Merritt says concerns air carriers and a number of people in town as it pertains to Boeing 737s carrying freight. DOT’s analysis says that the new runway will only make for tighter weight restrictions under certain flying conditions and that the landing length should be adequate.
The new runway is expected to open next year after the FAA installs navigation aids.