By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A long-awaited plan to lengthen the runways at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, potentially delivering more flights and an economic boost to the region, is close to winning approval and construction should start this summer, officials said.
“We are working very hard so we can do something in August,” airport manager Jon Stout said, referring to an anticipated groundbreaking in two months for the $53.8 million project.
If that schedule holds up, the extended runways should open in October 2014, fulfilling a plan hatched 15 years ago and improving the prospects for larger jet aircraft to service the county’s only commercial airport.
A year ago, the project was put on hold by federal environmental requirements that officials now believe have been accommodated.
The project is “close to a green light,” Stout said.
It is also expected to coincide with implementation of a new landing pattern that will reduce noise over Windsor and aircraft fuel consumption.
With the main runway extended by 885 feet to 6,000 feet, the airport will have a better chance of attracting major airlines such as Delta, United and Frontier that could bring in jets capable of flying east to air travel hubs at Denver, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, Stout said.
“It’s a game-changer for us,” said Jonathan Coe, president and chief executive of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.
The airport currently offers six flights a day in and out aboard Alaska Airlines’ twin-engine turboprop Bombardier Q400 aircraft to the West Coast cities of Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and San Diego.
With direct jet flights to inland hub airports, Santa Rosa would become a more attractive location for business and leisure travelers going to and coming from the rest of the country, Coe said.
For a major employer like Medtronic, for example, trips to corporate headquarters in Minneapolis could depart from Santa Rosa, eliminating the drive to either the San Francisco or Oakland airport, he said.
“That’s the big plus,” Coe said.
In approving the runway expansion plans in January 2012, county supervisor cited studies that put the value of each additional flight at the airport at $15 million in direct and indirect investment in the local economy.
The airport anticipates an eventual tripling of traffic to 19 arriving and departing flights per day, but Stout said the more immediate increase would be to 12 or 13 flights a day in about five years.
County Supervisor Mike McGuire, whose district includes the airport, said the expansion will be “a significant economic driver for Sonoma County and the North Bay region.”
“We’re excited,” he said. “The light at the end of the tunnel is now very bright.”
The Federal Aviation Administration, which is expected to fund about 90 percent of the runway expansion project, sees it as a safety improvement rather than an economic asset, Stout said.
The airport has two runways which form an inverted “V” connected at the north end. FAA standards, in the wake of a fatal crash at a Lexington, Ky., airport in 2006, require the decoupling of the ends of the runways in that configuration.
The project will extend Runway 14, the main runway, from 5,115 feet to 6,000 feet, separating its north end from Runway 19, which will be extended by 200 feet. That will result in a modified “X” runway pattern.
Stout there have been incidents in which pilots lined up on the wrong runway in the fog, but no accidents have occurred. Separating the runway endpoints will eliminate “pilot confusion,” he said.
McGuire said that FAA approval of a quieter landing pattern, known as continuous descent, is expected about the time the new runways open.
Instead of descending in a series of steps, incoming aircraft would make a wider circle north of the airport, then descend steadily at lower power to the airport, he said.
“I think Windsor residents will notice a difference,” Windsor Councilwoman Debora Fudge said.
Aircraft also will burn less fuel and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, she said.
Last July, officials said the runway expansion project had hit a nine-month delay because of added environmental requirements imposed by federal regulators for a pair of endangered plant and animal species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently is reviewing the county’s mitigation plan for offsetting potential loss of Burke’s goldfields, a small wetland flower. Stout and McGuire said they anticipate approval.
“In concept, we are all on the same page,” Stout said.
Overall, the environmental mitigation costs linked to the project amount to more than $20 million, or 37 percent of the total cost.
Also needed is FAA approval of the funding grants, which Stout expects to secure in July.
Sonoma County’s share of the project costs will be $5.2 million to $5.8 million, he said, and officials plan to submit construction bids to the supervisors on June 25.
“The momentum for the project has been building since day one,” McGuire said.
The overall airport expansion plan, pegged last year at $84 million, includes a new passenger terminal, control tower, air cargo facility and other improvements.
(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)