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$18.5M federal grant to fund Tucson airport runway work, safety improvements

An $18.5 million federal grant will go towards the next phase in a longterm Tucson International Airport project to expand and upgrade parts of its airfield so that it meets current federal safety standards, officials announced Thursday.

The project includes eventually adding another runway, and expanding taxiways for planes as well meeting other Federal Aviation Administration standards.

The ongoing Airfield Safety Enhancement Project at the Tucson International Airport will advance more quickly and smoothly with the funding from the grant, said Mike Smejkal, the vice president of planning and engineering for the Tucson Airport Authority. The second phase of the project is expected to stretch over the next three years, unless additional funding helps push it forward.

Airfields have three components, Smejkal said: the runway, where airplanes land and depart; the apron, where planes park and passengers and cargo are loaded and unloads; and the taxiways, where planes move between the runways and the apron. Smejkal said that the $18.5 million is one part of a $22.5 million federal grant for improving taxiway infrastructure.

Smejkal said that most of the pavement on an airfield is taxiways. TIA will soon complete a roughly 8-month project to construct an electrical vault to update components to allow the airport to better light runways at night, but the airfield is now moving toward the second phase of the upgrade project, focused on taxiways, he said.

TIA started the upgrades after the FAA updated safety standards and the definition for “runway incursions” in 2007. The term means an airplane being on a runway at the wrong time, and after the definition changed, the Tucson Airport Authority, which operates TIA under a contract with the city of Tucson, reported more incursions, according to the record of decision by the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation, though the incidents have all been minor.

This led to the TAA recommending in their 2014 Airport Master Plan that the airport relocate a runway and add a taxiway to reduce incursions. Much of the airport was laid out and constructed in the 1950s and needs the upgrades to meet newer FAA standards, Smejkal said.

The FAA formally approved the project in 2018, with an estimated price tag at the time of $218 million. Smejkal said the expected total cost of the project is now $300 million with $100 million going towards runway expansion. The project includes replacing a shorter, narrow runway used by private planes and other small aircraft with a longer, wider one, parallel with the existing main runway, that can be used by commercial aircraft. That would be a third runway for the airport, which also has a perpendicular crosswind runway that is sometimes used by airliners and military jets.

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Construction began last summer with the electrical vault phase, and Smejkal said that work could continue for the next six years — though more federal and state funding could cut that down to three years. The construction of the new runway won’t start for another two years or so, he said.

The second phase of the project will take about 12 months, Smejkal said, and will mean updating the pavement, the electrical components and the drainage and runoff system of the taxiways.

After that, three more construction phases will remain before the project is complete.

U.S. Sens. Mark Kelly and Krysten Sinema, chair of the Senate Aviation Safety, Operations and Innovation Subcommittee, announced the grant, emphasizing the expansion of the airport’s capacity and creation of jobs in Southern Arizona. A press release from Sinema's office said that the project will also help the 162nd Wing of the Arizona Air National Guard, which also operates out of the airport.

“We’re grateful for the FAA and ADOT,” Smejkal said. “We wouldn’t be able to construct the next phase without their continued support, and we expect to keep working with them.”

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said "these funds will allow TIA to continue to serve as our gateway to the rest of the country and world, promoting tourism and strengthening the flow of business and commerce into Tucson."

Smejkal said that commercial passengers at TIA won’t notice the construction much as most of it will be happening on the backend of the airfield, away from the terminals. Later in the project, they might notice more construction, but for the most part, it will be out of sight unless they’re looking beyond their gate.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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A view of Tucson International Airport from the air.