Whitetop Project at Elkhart Municipal Delivers More than Runway Improvements

Greg Gerber
Published in: 

When the main runway at Indiana's Elkhart Municipal Airport needed resurfacing in July 2009, the stars aligned in an unusual way to help get the project done with better materials and for less money - even in a seriously slumping local economy.

The airport was awarded a $4.2 million grant to fund the project through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. When completed, though, total cost was $3.76 million - still the state's largest ARRA grant for a general aviation airport.

The project rehabilitated the airport's main east/west runway, which was in very poor condition. "It had become a safety issue," recalls airport manager Andy Jones. "We could go out and pick up 3-inch pieces of asphalt in certain areas."

Facts & Figures

Project: Runway Rehabilitation

Location: Elkhart (IN) Municipal Airport

Size: 6,500 ft. long, 120 ft. wide

Cost: $3.76 million

Funding: American Recovery & Reinvestment Act grant

Engineering: Butler, Fairman & Seufert

Paving: Rieth-Riley

Inspection: Wightman Petrie

Strategy: Top of previous asphalt runway was milled off and replaced with concrete

That type of foreign object debris makes pilots nervous and keeps airfield crews running to fill potholes. The materials and manpower necessary to seal the runway cracks were expensive and time consuming, relates Jones. A few times a year, he notes, the situation could have forced the airport to periodically close the runway for maintenance.

Before the economy took a dive in late 2008, the airport had already completed the environmental impact study for the project, which meant it was basically "shovel ready" - one of the key criteria for using stimulus money. The airport's five-year capital improvement plan, however, showed that the rehabilitation wasn't scheduled for another three years. Although the Federal Aviation Administration reviews capital improvement plans when making funding considerations, the runway's condition and the FAA formula for evaluating funding proposals bumped Elkhart Municipal's runway up to 2009.

Jones and his staff also encouraged FAA officials to inspect the runway. "They saw firsthand how poorly the runway had withstood the test of time," he explains. "We like to think our lobbying efforts had something to do with us getting the funding we needed for the project. But, in reality, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 injected funds into the FAA's budget that allowed them to fund our project as well as several other badly needed airport projects in the Great Lakes Region."

Recognizing that the dipping economy could play a role in reducing construction costs, Jones solicited bids for not only an asphalt overlay, but a concrete overlay as well. Concrete, he notes, has a 30-year life expectancy (vs. 10 years for asphalt) and was ultimately selected for the job.

"Our asphalt runway suffered from 'alligator' cracks which had to be sealed using hot tar," Jones explains. "It was an annual and endless process. Concrete does not crack in the same way as asphalt does. Unlike asphalt, concrete usually cracks only at the joints. Our engineers said the joints will not need much attention for another 10 years."

Closing Time

Elkhart Municipal closed the 6,500-foot runway for the 45-day project, but the FAA allowed pilots to use the airport's 5,300-foot parallel taxiway as a temporary runway during daylight hours covered by the air traffic control tower. The airport also had a second 4,000-foot paved runway to the south that remained open throughout the project.

The main runway ended up opening three days earlier than expected, thanks to nearly perfect weather and engineers and inspectors working onsite with contractors every day, says Jones. All parties collaborated to plan for any contingency that may have come up, he recalls.

Workers created eight paving lanes stretching the entire 6,500 foot length of the runway to lay down the concrete.

Engineering firm Butler, Fairman & Seufert designed the plans and managed onsite construction. Wightman Petrie, a local firm, provided inspection services. Rieth-Riley, another local firm, was the paving contractor.

"All the firms have a great deal of experience in airport construction work," says Jones. "We relied upon their expertise to ensure that the plans were followed closely."

To save time and money, the construction contractor created an on-site concrete plant to mix material as it was needed.

Coordinating efforts to shut down the runway, mill down and tear out the original asphalt and replace it with concrete in just 42 days was a feat in itself, recalls Paul Shaffer, manager of airport development for Butler, Fairman & Seufert. The last time the runway was resurfaced with asphalt, it took 60 days, notes Shaffer.

"It was quite a big deal and it required quite a lot of coordination," relates Jeremy Books, an engineer with Butler, Fairman & Seufert. "The project had little affect on traffic into and out of the airport, which meant the airport experienced little loss of revenue."

To increase efficiency, contractors built a temporary concrete plant onsite. This eliminated the need to transport concrete great distances, which reduce the project's fuel consumption and emissions.

The paving process required meticulous coordination among several different crews to set up a steel cable string and jopint supports for each of the eight 15-foot-wide paving lanes stretching 6,500 feet.

Several inches of asphalt were milled off the runway before the concrete was poured on top. Up to 10 inches was taken off critical areas such as touchdown points. The airport reused the ground asphalt to overlay dirt roads, which eliminated the need for asphalt paving in the future, Jones notes.

Thickness becomes an issue with concrete overlays - especially when increasing runway elevation 10 inches in key areas, notes Shaffer. Contractors ran a steel cable the entire 6,500-foot length of the runway to guide workers in pouring the right amount of concrete, explains Books. Crews used eight paving lanes, each with its own cable line.

"The pavers did a great job because the test results exceeded the FAA's required threshold for concrete strength," Books reports. "They used quality materials and put in place an excellent quality control process to ensure that the workmanship was consistent from one end of the runway to the other."

City-wide Benefits

Although the refurbished runway will not increase airport revenue per se, it will greatly improve safety and decrease long-term maintenance costs, says Jones.

Completing the project with ARRA funds upped the net benefits for the airport. Often, funding for airport infrastructure projects is supported through federal grants that require a local match of 2.5% and another 2.5% from the state, Jones notes. ARRA funds did not require additional matching funds.

"If we had not received the stimulus money, Elkhart taxpayers would have had to invest as much as $94,000 to support the project," Jones explains. "And, if we had used asphalt to resurface the runway, taxpayers would have had to invest another $100,000 or more 10 years from now when it would have required resurfacing again."

According to Books, the concrete overlay cost slightly more than an asphalt overlay, but its longer life expectancy and lower annual maintenance costs made it worth the extra money. "I think it improved the chances of getting more funding, because we showed that it would last longer and require less maintenance," he adds.

"I know the FAA established a budget for the project, but they were nice enough to give us slightly more than we originally estimated so we could provide a long-term benefit for the people of Elkhart," he explains. "Even with the concrete, we remained under the maximum budget the FAA told us we needed to meet."

And, thanks to the grant, the entire project could be completed all at once rather than in phases over time, he adds.

When the project was originally submitted for approval, the FAA questioned how the profile grade would be maintained. Under FAA criteria, the asphalt beneath the concrete did not qualify as a 'bonded' overlay; it was considered a flexible base.

"Traditionally, for an asphalt overlay, an airport only increases the runway elevation by two inches," explains Shaffer. "To add a 10-inch section is unique in the aviation industry, and it required a unique solution ... But, we knew of a way to complete the project that didn't require a new instrument approach procedure to be developed."

The strategy, he estimates, saved 18 months of work getting plans approved. "It was like building a brand new runway," he relates.

When the project was complete, the community celebrated with a ribbon cutting ceremony that ranked as one of the best Books has ever experienced. More than 150 people attended - quite a crowd in a city of about 52,000. "There was a great deal of cheering when that first aircraft took off," Books recalls. "I think a lot of people appreciated having a long- term infrastructure project that brought jobs to a community that desperately needed them."

With unemployment over 20% at the time, Elkhart was among the most economically depressed communities in the country. President Obama even held a town hall meeting there to highlight the country's acute economic problems while Congress debated the stimulus bill.

"The project had special meaning for the people of Elkhart," recalls Jones. "(It) was a real morale-booster ... More importantly, the citizens of Elkhart have a new runway that will last well into the future."


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