Detroit Lakes County Airport Expands Main Runway to Attract More Jet Traffic

Detroit Lakes County Airport Expands Main Runway to Attract More Jet Traffic
Author: 
Mike Schwanz
Published in: 
July-August
2021

Turning perception into reality can be tricky, especially when it involves multimillion-dollar budgets.

The decision-makers who oversee Detroit Lakes-Becker County Airport (DTL) in northwestern Minnesota faced this classic challenge when building support and securing funds for an approximately $25 million runway expansion and airfield renovation.

“We are in the middle of our state’s lakes region,” explains City Administrator Kelcey Klemm, who serves as the main point person on airport issues for the city of Detroit Lakes. “A lot of people have summer homes here, and tourism is a big part of our area’s economy. But to entice even more visitors, we knew we had to expand the length of our primary runway so we could attract more private and business jet operations.”

facts&figures

Project: Extending & Widening Main Runway

Location: Detroit Lakes-Becker County Airport, MN

Scope: Airport added 700 ft. of length & 25 ft. of width to primary runway; extended partial parallel taxiway to full length

Other Ancillary Projects:
Upgraded perimeter fence, airfield lighting & navigational aids; added new approach lighting system; relocated & upgraded AWOS; fixed existing safety issues on both ends of main runway

Approximate Cost: $25 million

Environmental Costs: About 15% of project budget, including $700,000 to buy credits from the MN Board of Water & Soil Resources for filling in wetlands to extend runway

Funding Sources: FAA 90%; State 5%; City 2.5%; County 2.5%

Timeline: Planning & design 2015-2017; construction Oct. 2017- spring 2021; runway closure June & July 2020 Engineering Consultant: Mead & Hunt

Main Contractor: Hough

Electrical Subcontractor: Moorhead Electric

Fencing Contractor: Century Fence

Gates & Posts: Stephens Pipe & Steel

FBO: Detroit Lakes Aviation

Airfield Management Fee: $2,500/month to FBO, plus hourly costs for snow removal ($17.50/hr.) & mowing ($12.50/hr.)

Annual Hangar Income: $140,000

Project Benefits: Longer, wider runway will help draw more jet traffic; upgraded lighting is designed to reduce energy costs; new perimeter fence will help reduce wildlife hazards

At 4,500 feet long and 75 feet wide, Runway 13-31 was simply too short and narrow to support most jet traffic. Having only a partial parallel taxiway was another issue.         

The location of a U.S. highway to the north, and a city road to the south, were major safety zone violations. In addition, the local FBO caters to turbine aircraft, and it had potential customers who wanted to use DTL but could not, due to the runway length.

After many years of discussion, various stakeholders agreed to a plan that extended the runway to 5,200 feet, widened it to 100 feet and provided a full parallel taxiway.

To make the airfield improvements a reality, Klemm needed some help. DTL does not have a full-time airport director, so Klemm and his staff plan and secure estimates for projects. A five-person airport commission then reviews their recommendations. “We are not an airport authority; the airport is governed by the airport commission,” specifies Commission Chairman Mark Hagen. “The commission operates under a joint operating agreement between the city of Detroit Lakes and Becker County. Since the airport is located within the city limits, the city is charged with operating the airport. The city administrator sits in on all of our meetings. We have worked well together.”

Hagen, who has been on the airport commission since 1992, says that extending the main runway was first discussed more than 20 years ago. Many proposals were introduced but eventually died, due to a lack of consensus among commission members. “This idea was stalled for several years, due to the ‘purpose and need’ section of the environmental assessment process,” he explains. “The project was bounced around in many meetings, but no decisions were being made by the agencies involved.”

Hagen credits Andy Peak, a new official at the FAA district office in Minneapolis, as being instrumental with organizing a process to either get the project completed, or end the discussion. That prodded the airport to act.

In 2015, DTL hired aviation consultant Mead & Hunt to provide the experienced help needed to navigate the many hurdles associated with a project of this complexity. “City and county officials, airport commission members and people from my team regrouped, and proposed a new path to move forward,” says Bryan Page, an engineering manager and aviation principal with the company. “We received positive reviews of the new plan, and had excellent collaboration from both the FAA and the Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Aeronautics, among other agencies.”

To secure FAA funding, the airport had to demonstrate the purpose and need for the runway project. The key was proving that there was enough potential corporate and private aircraft traffic to warrant an extension. Specifically, DTL had to show that there would be at least 900 more jet operations per year. To do so, the project team secured statements from several private and commercial airplane owners indicating that they would use the airport more often if it had a longer runway. “It is a major issue for a GA airport without scheduled commercial operations to prove the need for a runway expansion,” states Hagen. “You have to go out and find users who have not flown to that airport previously, and get them to write a letter that they will use the airport if it is expanded. This would be similar to building a hotel, and having the bank asking for potential guests’ names during the loan process. In my opinion, this is not the best method of determining the need for an airport project.

We also proved that several models of longer-range jets would be able to use DTL’s proposed runway,” Hagen adds.

Another document required to secure federal and state funding was a report detailing specific improvements that would be made. The airport’s list included:

  • extending Runway 13-31 to 5,200 feet;
  • widening 13-31 from 75 feet to 100 feet;
  • creating a full parallel taxiway for 13-31;
  • building a more effective perimeter fence;
  • upgrading airfield lighting and navigational aids to modern equipment with LEDs  to reduce energy consumption;
  • installing a new approach lighting system on the south end of Runway 12-21 to improve capabilities in all weather conditions;
  • replacing Visual Approach Slope Indicators (VASIs) on 13-31 with new Precision Approach Path Indicators (PAPIs);
  • relocating and upgrading the Automated Weather Observation System (AWOS);
  • installing new runway and taxiway edge and threshold lighting; and
  • adding a modern, energy-saving lighting control system located in a new climate-controlled electrical facility.

Planning, Funding & Phasing

The first step for Page and his team was to develop a detailed environmental assessment concerning the south end of the runway. This document involved 23 different agencies, and was coordinated by the FAA. Two wastewater treatment ponds located just beyond the airfield had to be drained and filled because the waterfowl that used them were a potential threat to planes using the runway. In addition, there was a natural wetland right where the main runway would be lengthened that had to be drained and filled.

After the environmental requirements were approved, airfield renovations were designed in winter 2016-17. “We had to use a large design team of more than 30 people for a project of this complexity,” Page reports. “On any given day, there were three to six team members on-site.”

Before the construction could begin, the airport had to secure funding. The budget was estimated at $25 million, and FAA agreed to cover 90% of the cost. The state of Minnesota contributed 5%; Becker County kicked in 2.5%; and the city of Detroit Lakes matched the county’s 2.5%.

There were strings attached, however. Because DTL is a small airport, the FAA would not commit to the complete sum right away. After the project team completed Phase 1, the airport could then apply to receive funding for Phase 2. In total, construction was divided into four phases.

Funding for Phase 1 was granted in September 2017, and construction occurred from October 2017 to July 2018. Crews placed 100,000 cubic yards of fill on the south end of the airport to prepare the site where Runway 13-31 and its parallel taxiway would be extended. In addition to grading the area, they also improved drainage and relocated utilities.

Work for Phase 2 started in October 2018. Approximately 56,000 cubic yards of fill were hauled in, placed and compacted within the wetland south of the runway’s 31 end to create a 600-by-300-foot runway safety area. The remainder of Phase 2 was finished in May 2019. To complete the grading, drainage and taxiway extensions, contractors established a 500-foot temporary displaced threshold on Runway 31.

During Phase 3—the most significant portion of the project—contractors reconstructed, lengthened and widened Runway 13-31. That involved 230,000 cubic yards of excavation, 42,000 cubic yards of imported granular fill, 8,400 cubic yards of crushed aggregate base course and 12,400 tons of asphalt paving.

Phase 3 required full closure of the runway in June and July 2020, but DTL’s shorter turf runway (18-36) remained in operation throughout the two-month closure. The new 5,200-foot-long runway—now classified by the FAA as Runway 14-32, due to magnetic declination—opened to traffic on July 31, 2020.

While crews extended the runway, they also upgraded airfield lighting and guidance signs, added new supplemental wind cones, installed PAPIs on both ends of Runway 14-32 and built a new electrical vault building.

Water Woes

A major part of the project involved draining bodies of water on and off airport property. Two wastewater treatment sedimentation ponds located just beyond airport property south of the main runway were owned by a local utility, and were considered abandoned. Since they were no longer used for treating wastewater, the city of Detroit Lakes worked closely with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency concerning plans to drain them, and got approval to do so. As a result, the project team encountered minimal red tape to fill them.

The more complicated issue involved mitigating 27 acres of wetland impacted by the project on the far south end of the airfield—right where the new runway needed to be extended. In order to obtain the required permitting in this area, DTL had to buy wetland credits from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. “This was an expensive option,” states Hagen. “It cost us $700,000 to just buy the credits. The initial plan was to mitigate the wetland disturbance on-site, but the decision of the stakeholder agencies was that the on-site mitigation option would require several years of monitoring the wetland. The watershed district did not have the bandwidth to provide the monitoring. Therefore, the decision was collectively made to acquire the credits of existing wetland through the local wetland bank. Considering everything that went into the project, I would estimate that 15% of the cost for the entire airfield renovation came just from doing the environmental preparations.”

An important element of Phase 4 was installing a new perimeter fence around the entire airfield to keep out wildlife such as deer and coyotes.  The new barrier includes more than four miles of 10-foot-tall chain link fence, topped with three-strand barbed wire. The airport also added a 2-foot-deep underground chain link fabric to deter animals from burrowing underneath the fence. Construction of the fences started in late October 2020 and was finished this spring.

Another key segment of Phase 4 involved installing the new AWOS, which was repositioned closer to Runway 32 to comply with FAA guidelines.

Finally, DTL added an automated sliding gate system at the south end of the airfield. Now, airport personnel, pilots and maintenance workers punch a security code into a keypad to enter the airfield.

New Wastewater Treatment Plant

While construction was occurring on the airfield, the city of Detroit Lakes also built a new wastewater treatment plant off airfield property. “The decision to build the new plant was made in 2015, even before any work was done on the airport,” states Klemm. “We needed to build and open the new plant, and then drain and fill the abandoned wastewater treatment ponds near the airport.”

The new treatment plant opened in spring 2020, a few months before the new runway reopened. “To get two major projects like this to align is very rare, but everything kind of fell into place,” says Klemm.

The new plant cost $34 million, and was funded separately from the airfield projects. 

Financial Dividends

With the airfield projects completed, and the airport humming along, Klemm already has noticed a boost in local economic activity. “In late spring this year, the town was very busy,” he reports. “Food and tax revenues are already up. And I definitely have noticed more planes overhead.”

Klemm also expects a lively summer. “We host a big country music festival every August, and I am sure that at least some of the 30,000 people expected to attend will use our airport to fly in here,” he says. “We also are hoping that after the pandemic, there will be a pent-up demand for people wanting to visit our region, and perhaps using our airport as their entry point.”

Subcategory: 
General Aviation

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