Blue Grass Airport Races to Repave Runway in 72 Hours

Blue Grass Airport Races to Repave Runway in 72 Hours
Paul Nolan
Published in: 

There is a certain type of NASCAR fan who prefers to watch races from pit road because that’s often where races are won or lost. They love to see the carefully choreographed flurry of action as crews fuel up a car and swap out four tires in less than 15 seconds.

These fans would have enjoyed the scene at Blue Grass Airport (LEX) this August, as workers resurfaced a 7,004-foot runway in just three days. When officials shut down air traffic at the Lexington, KY, airfield for 72 hours, something akin to a NASCAR pit crew sprang into action. Instead of jackmen, tire changers and fuelers, there were asphalt contractors, construction crews and trucking operators working furiously.

This was the third time LEX has resurfaced its sole commercial runway in such a speedy manner. Mark Day, the airport’s director of Development and Facilities, notes that a similar strategy was used in 1994 and again in 2006. Each time, team members have been impressed by the planning and coordination required to pull off the impressive feat.


Project: Runway & Taxiway Rehabilitation

Location: Lexington (KY) Blue Grass Airport

Runway: 4-22

Size: 7,004 ft. x 150 ft.

Key Elements: Precision mill & 3-inch asphalt overlay; replacing lights & signage with LED fixtures; EMAS (scheduled for installation spring 2022)

Total Cost: $24.5 million

Funding: Airport capital funds; Airport Improvement Program grant

Construction: Aug. 2021

Phasing Strategy: 72-hour runway closure to allow continuous construction

Key Benefits: Enhanced safety & long-term pavement durability

Prime Consultant & Construction Management: HDR Inc.

Electrical Consultant: AVCON Inc.

Pavement Consultant: RDM International Inc.

Quality Control Testing: S&ME Inc.

Lighting Supplier: ADB SAFEGATE

Planning Consultant: CMT Inc.

Markings Consultant: Sightline Inc.

Prime Contractor: ATS Construction

Asphalt Contractors: ATS Construction;
The Allen Co.

Electrical Contractor: Appalachian Foothills Construction

EMAS Supplier: Runway Safe

“Watching all of the equipment and people… it was like a concerto of actors and musicians,” says Donna Speidel, president of Sightline Inc., the runway markings consultant for the project. Speidel and her son, Mike, worked rotating 12-hour shifts to ensure the accuracy of temporary markings applied to the new runway.

The Decision to Shut Down

With non-stop and connecting service from four commercial airlines (Allegiant, American, Delta and United), LEX served more than 1.4 million passengers in 2019. The airport added a second runway in 2010; but at 4,000 feet long, it strictly serves general aviation aircraft. That’s why management is always so intent on getting the commercial runway back into service after it is repaved. 

Day knows from experience that planning plays a critical role in getting everyone on board for the extended weekend projects.

“We began engaging the airlines two years in advance to make sure we understood their schedules and the impact the runway work would have on them—everything from seasonal travel to schedules for business travel,” he explains. “While airports and airlines never want to close, we were able to demonstrate to our partners that the extended benefits of paving in this way will reduce maintenance costs, which will save the airlines money down the road.”

This time around, LEX considered pushing its runway project up when the pandemic drastically reduced flight traffic in 2020; but discretionary funds were not available at the time. The airport did, however, mill and upgrade its main taxiway for $4 million in fall 2020, which meant less to tackle during the closure in summer 2021.

Planning and preliminary design for its latest runway resurfacing effort began in 2016. During previous repaving projects, the airport was able to close for a shorter period (42 hours in 1994 and 48 hours in 2006) because crews were able to complete the milling in advance. However, FAA guidelines now restrict airlines from operating on milled surfaces. Also, Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations limit the number of consecutive hours that truck drivers can work.

Crews were able to complete some prep work before the closure weekend—for instance, removing edge pavement and replacing edge lighting and some in-pavement lighting with new LED fixtures. In the months following the closure weekend, crews cut runway grooves, installed the remaining in-pavement LED runway lights and painted permanent markings. The final element of the project will be completed next spring, when the airport installs an engineered materials arrestor system (EMAS) bed. 

Many airports avoid completely shutting down for similar work by repaving small sections of runway each night after flight service has ended and reopening for traffic the next morning. Day estimates it would have taken crews months to repave the commercial runway at LEX if management had opted to use a piecemeal approach.

“While you can estimate lost activity for that 72 hours, I think the unknown losses of doing the project like other airports is challenging for comparison,” he says. “It is difficult to assess what air service might have been lost if we couldn’t open on time any given morning. Further, we wouldn’t be able to accommodate late night flights at all.”

Officials at LEX also feel that closing the runway for an extended weekend is a safer option for full-length repaving. “If you’re closing your airfield every night and hoping that when you finish that five-hour construction window everything is buttoned up, marked properly, and all the materials are in place when the lights come back on…you’re taking a big risk every day,” Day explains.

Coordination Is Key

The airport enlisted the services of two local asphalt contractors—ATS Construction and The Allen Company—because neither was able to supply enough asphalt individually to complete the project in just 72 hours.

If, as Speidel suggests, the repaving effort was like a symphony, Tim Ward was the conductor. Ward is the design and construction project manager for HDR, which provided engineering and construction administration services for the project. Ward summarizes his role as “making sure I had all the ducks in a row for the weekend to be successful.”

That included having backups for backups, and developing contingency plans for countless impediments, such as bad weather. Ward notes that some resurfacing work can be performed in rain, but heavy rainfall would have required LEX to extend or reschedule its project.

As it was, Mother Nature served up beautiful weather for the duration of the runway closure. Just two weeks later, blustery weather blew in as a remnant of Hurricane Ida.

“Some airport projects can be pushed to another weekend, but airlines build their flight schedules six months in advance,” Ward explains. “If we programmed in a contingency weekend, the airlines would have likely aligned their schedules and not had any flights on that weekend whether or not it was necessary.”

Shortages of materials and workers during the COVID pandemic have dogged a wide range of projects, and the runway rehab at LEX was no exception. “With supply chain issues, we had to work closely with electricians, asphalt producers and others to make sure everything was in line,” Day advises. “Fortunately, every contingency we planned for was not needed.”

Speidel was initially concerned that her company’s preferred reflective paint might not be available for the temporary markings, but that proved not to be the case. In any event, she was prepared to move forward with a suitable substitute.

Cost Strategies

Airport officials peg the total cost of the project at $24.5 million. Funding was primarily provided by FAA Airport Improvement Program grants ($24 million) and LEX capital funds. Key expenses were:

• Planning – $1.1 million

• Design – $1.31 million

• Construction Management & Administration – $1.94 million

• Construction – $16.2 million

• EMAS – $4 million

Ward and Day note that the weekend closure strategy likely improved cost efficiency because contractors did not have to run the asphalt plant nightly for several months. Furthermore, they reason that concentrating the work schedule reduced costs for resident inspectors and certified testing personnel.

Another important factor the project team considered was quality control. Since asphalt plants have to convert their operations for special FAA-approved mixes, it is more likely that repeated switching from daytime production for highway use to nighttime production for airport use could result in challenges, Day explains. If crews had installed a section of bad mix on the runway at LEX, it would have likely required additional closures.

Moreover, running multiple shifts over one long weekend allowed contractors to lay down hot asphalt continuously, thus reducing the number of “cold joints” between sections. This significantly reduces the amount of maintenance required over the lifetime of the runway, notes Ward.

Just as the pit crew of a winning NASCAR team understands its value and shares in the glory of a checkered flag, the companies involved in the project at LEX celebrated when the crucial commercial runway reopened. 

“It was probably the best project that I’ve ever been involved in,” Ward remarks. “I put in 16- to 18-hour days, but I enjoyed every minute of it. They were long, tiring days. But when I look back on them, it was a great opportunity.” 


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