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$30M federal grant for new TIA runway, safety projects

A new runway at Tucson International Airport will be partly paid for with $31 million from the recent federal infrastructure package, along with other safety improvement.

The funding, coming over the next five years, will get the airport through the next phase of its $350 million Airfield Safety Enhancement project, which is midway through completion.

The $6.1 million coming from the infrastructure plan each year is expected to speed up the project by at least one year, said Mike Smejkal, vice president of planning and engineering for the Tucson Airport Authority. But the federal funds will only cover a portion of the project’s current phase, which is the second part of the project. The Federal Aviation Administration announced the funding last Thursday.

“TAA is very excited to receive this additional funding,” Smejkal said. “It will help us accelerate the construction of our ASE program, and we certainly appreciate the local legislators and representatives' efforts to get this across the finish line.”

The $6,146,234 that TIA is receiving from the infrastructure package is the second highest amount going to an Arizona airport. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is receiving more than $41 million. Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport will receive $4.4 million and is the only other airport of the nine commercial airfields receiving to receive more than $3 million.

TIA's safety project is a long-term plan to demolish a 1.5-mile general aviation runway and replace it with a runway that’s twice as wide and 4,000 feet longer to reduce the chance of “runway incursions,” or planes being on the runway at the wrong time, which can lead to collisions.

TAA, which operates TIA, recorded an increasing number of minor incursions after the FAA broadened the definition, and TIA, much of which was built in the 1950s, is having to upgrade to meet new FAA safety standards.

Construction for the project happens at a distance from the terminals that commercial passengers use at TIA, making it go unnoticed by many. But the project has multiple construction phases, including electrical components, pavement, drainage and runoff systems and taxiways.

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The new runway is expected to be constructed in about two years or so, Smejkal had previously said, but the project’s schedule — and cost — have changed several times since construction began in the summer of 2020. The project was originally expected to cost $300 million and last at least five years, but the cost was revised in October, and Smejkal has said that construction could continue for the next six years. Continued state and federal funding could reduce that by as much as half, he said.

TAA is pursuing additional discretionary funding from the FAA to accelerate the project further, Smejkal said. They received $18.5 million in July, and, at that time, the project was in an eight-month phase to construct an electrical vault that would improve lighting on runways at night. The second phase, which is where the funds from the infrastructure law are going, is focused on the improvement of taxiways, which are critical to the reduction of incursion as it gives planes a place to be while others take off.

The construction of new taxiways will mostly benefit tenants at the airfield including Raytheon, the Arizona Air National Guard and FedEx, among others, by giving them continued access to a runway while the new one is constructed.

The new federal infrastructure package encourages projects that increase airport safety, equity and sustainability. While safety is a given part of TIA's project, Smejkal said that the latter two values can be expected to be part of it as well.

“We certainly look at that on every project,” he said, noting that they’re using LED lighting for the airfield and they’re working towards “long-term sustainability and energy efficiency.”

“We’re always looking at the best use of material, recycling material and minimizing the bringing of material on or off the site, which obviously has a sustainability and emissions type of benefit, ” he said. “That really is incorporated into every project we do."

The grant will pay for about 66 jobs with salaries of about $92,000, though the second phase of the project is expected to create 489 jobs overall, Smejkal said.

“It will create a number of construction jobs for the year,” he said. “Construction trade jobs are very good paying jobs in general, and we certainly think that the folks that we’ll be able to employ on this project will fall into that category.”

The infrastructure law will have a big impact on modernizing airports, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build safer and more sustainable airports that connect individuals to jobs and communities to the world,” said Buttigieg. “With this new funding, urban, regional and rural airports across the country now can get to work on projects that have waited for years, modernizing their infrastructure and building a better America.”

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U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly commented on the importance of the funding for Arizona's airports, saying “our airports are vital economic drivers for our state."

“Funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that I helped negotiate will support necessary upgrades and modernization projects at our airports that will fuel job growth, boost tourism, and help our economy grow,” he said.

Smejkal also thanked U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who is the chair of the Senate Aviation Safety, Operations and Innovation Subcommittee and “who helped lead this charge on this particular package. TAA is also grateful for her help.”

The nine commercial airports in Arizona expected to receive funding are:

  • Flagstaff Pulliam: $1,481,017
  • Grand Canyon Airport: $2,446,997
  • Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport: $1,566,603
  • Page Municipal Airport: $1,026,961
  • Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport: 4,448,238
  • Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport: $41,016,084
  • Prescott Regional Airport - Ernest A Love Field: $1,018,008
  • Tucson International in Tucson: $6,146,234
  • Yuma Marine Corps Air Station/Yuma International: $1,367,651

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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