Detroit Metro Splits Runway Reconstruction & Fast-Tracks Construction to Maintain Asian Service

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

Runway 4R-22L serves a special role at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW). At 12,000 feet long, it's the only runway that allows a fully loaded 747 or 777 to depart and fly nonstop to Asian destinations during the warm summer months. As such, 4R-22L is a key element in the airport's role as Delta Air Lines' Asian hub.

So when it came time to reconstruct the deteriorating runway, airport officials' primary concern was maintaining operations during the massive project.


Project: Runway Reconstruction

Location: Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport

Cost: $150 million


Design Team: Michigan Aviation Partners (joint venture of Kimley-Horn & Assoc. and Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull) 

Aviation Alliance; Barnard Dunkelberg & Co, a Mead & Hunt Company; CDM Smith Michigan; Connico; Jacobsen/Daniels Assoc.; Orchard, Hiltz & McCliment; Roy D. McQueen & Assoc.; Somat Engineering

Construction Team:South End General Contractor: Ajax Paving Industries

North End General Contractor: Angelo Iafrate
Construction Co.

Dan's Excavating; Rauhorn Electric; Walter Toebe Construction Co.

Preformed Pavement Seals: D.S. Brown

Runway Lighting & Signage: ADB Airfield Solutions

Preformed Thermoplastic Markings: Ennis-Flint

Markings Installation: P.K. Contracting

Runway Weather Information System: Vaisala

Of Note: Fast-track reconstruction, performed by 2 separate general contractors working in slightly overlapping phases, allowed for continued operations during peak summer months; new runway can serve Group VI aircraft

"We had to have the runway open for Delta's overseas flights in the summer, so they wouldn't be faced with weight restrictions during their peak season when temperatures and humidity are at the highest and headwinds over the Pacific are greater," explains Director of Airfield Capital Projects Tom McCarthy.

To alleviate the potential conflict, DTW split the $150 million project between two general contractors and two main phases. Angelo Iafrate Construction Co. completed the north end last year, and Ajax Paving completed the south end this year. "The runway was out of operation from April through July each year, reopening for Delta's peak season in August," notes McCarthy.

Using fast-track construction methods and working in overlapping four-month construction seasons, the two general contractors and more than 30 subcontractors completed full reconstruction of the 12,003-foot runway and Parallel Taxiway Z 12 days ahead of schedule.

"With this type of project, the normal timeframe for completion would be probably twice as long," notes Pete Mann, project manager for Ajax. "But we were working 16- to18- hour days, seven days a week."

"Despite the weather and magnitude of the work, we were able to finish both phases of the project in a safe and timely manner due to the strong performance and efforts of a great construction team," adds Bruce Young, project manager of Angelo Iafrate. 

Divide & Reward

Angelo Iafrate broke ground in April 2012, completing approximately 4,000 feet of runway on the north end as well as adjacent taxiway work before the runway reopened in August. Ajax Paving, general contractor on the south end, began work in April 2013 while Angelo Iafrate finished up the north end and crosswind runway work.

To encourage on-time completion, DTW incentivized the contractors with bonuses of $20,000 per day for early completion. On the flip side, liquidated damages in the amount of $200,000 per day and $500 per minute would have been assessed if they had not met the Aug. 1 deadline.

"The fact that both contractors, who normally would be competitors, were able to work closely together to complete this project 12 days ahead of schedule was a tremendous feat," notes J.J. Morton, of the design team.

Ajax's Mann, in turn, credits Michigan Aviation Partners for keeping everyone on track: "We had a lot of meetings. We had to coordinate with the other contractor, with electricians, the owner. We were able to eliminate potential problems by discussing them up front."

Michigan Aviation Partners, a joint venture of Kimley-Horn and Associates and the local minority-owned environmental and civil engineering firm of Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull, provided engineering, design, project management and construction phase services for the runway reconstruction.

George Karmo, president of Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull, describes the project as a win-win for his company and the Wayne County Airport Authority. "We've done a lot of utilities work at the airport, but we didn't have experience in runway construction," relates Karmo. "For us, it was an opportunity to be mentored and trained by Kimley-Horn to perform design work and get experience in runway construction. In the process, the airport authority kept monies in the local community."

Big By Any Measure

The massive project was split into six bid packages:

  • Relocation and reconstruction of Parallel Taxiway Z to meet Aircraft Design VI separation standards and demolition of a 30,000-square-foot hangar to create a staging area 
  • Construction of Taxiway M service road for airport rescue and firefighting vehicles 
  • Installation of a new airfield lighting vault
  • Reconstruction of the northern portion of Runway 4R-22L and associated taxiways, including a portion of Crosswind Runway 9L-27R and Taxiway V
  • Reconstruction of the southern portion of Runway 4R-22L and associated taxiways
  • Installation of Runway 4R-22L NAVAIDS and visual screen (to be completed next year)

Quantifications of individual phases convey the immense scale of the overall project. For instance, the amount of concrete poured - 614,000 square yards of 17-inch thick pavement - is equivalent to nearly 87 lane miles of highway. The new runway also includes more than 7,800 tons of reinforced concrete pipe, which is 500 more tons than the steel structure of the Eiffel Tower.

In addition, crews installed more than 44,000 linear feet (approximately nine miles) of taxiway and runway shoulder pavement, 700,000 square feet of taxiway and runway pavement markings, more than 1,700 individual runway and taxiway centerline and edge light fixtures, more than 100 new LED runway and taxiway guidance signs and 110 miles of electrical cable. LED lighting was used for all fixtures, except for the high-intensity runway edge lights.

Airfield safety upgrades include the installation of in-pavement runway guard lights as well as elevated runway guard lights at all runway-taxiway intersections to minimize the potential for runway incursions. A runway status light system was installed along the length of the runway to mitigate runway incursions of departing aircraft. A new pavement surface sensor system was added to monitor the runway for icing conditions.
DTW also upgraded and expanded its Vaisala Runway Weather Information System during the project. In addition to updating existing electronics and adding new sensors to collect airfield condition data, the airport is moving to a hosted system.

"This means that Vaisala will poll the sensors and collect the data at our data center in Colorado," explains Stephanie Haynes, the company's sales manager. "Airport users will be able to access the data from any computer via a Web-based display called Navigator II. This is a departure from the traditional system, where airports were required to have a server onsite collecting observations and generating the display. The hosted system is more robust, easier for the airport to manage and gives them the latest and greatest in display software."

Instead of paint, Kimley-Horn and Associates specified preformed thermoplastic runway and taxiway markings. "These markings enhance and retain visibility over time and limit the need to close runways for periodic repainting," explains J.J. Morton, the company's vice president and project manager.

DTW's constrained construction season combined with its need to have a fully functional runway for a portion of the summer presented significant challenges, notes Morton.

"Batch plants were located on each end of the runway to expedite the project as well as to save fuel consumption and decrease emissions," he explains. "A key element in the project was the use of stringless pavement technology for all of the subgrade preparation and paving operations. They were able to keep the grades within 2/100 of a foot at all times."

Surveyors used lidar scanning, a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light, to facilitate work at night without hindering runway operations.

Two Down, One to Go

The newly reconstructed Runway 4R-22L replaces a predecessor that was built in the 1950s to accommodate Boeing-707s.
"We had to work closely with the FAA to bring the runway up to standards," McCarthy explains.

"Obviously, we're working with much larger aircraft today. Our reconstructed runway is designed to accommodate Group VI aircraft. It can handle B-747-8s, and if someone wants to bring in an A-380 in the future, we'll be able to handle that."

During the third phase of the project, which will begin next year, DTW will displace the threshold at the 4R end of the runway and construct an end-around taxiway screen - the second at any U.S. airport, notes McCarthy.

The screen will block the view of aircraft on a parallel runway's taxiway at the far south end of 4R-22L. Because the runway is so long, pilots preparing for departure on the north end could mistakenly think an aircraft is crossing the runway and abort their takeoffs, he explains. The FAA-required screen will hide aircraft on the taxiway to avoid such cases. Because pilots will only be able to see an aircraft's tail, they will know that the aircraft is on a taxiway beyond the end of the 4R-22L and it is safe to takeoff, McCarthy continues.

Once the threshold is displaced, the runway will be 509 feet shorter for flights arriving from the south to meet FAA standards, he adds.

Unfortunate Timing

All told, DTW's $150 million runway reconstruction created more than 1,000 jobs during its two-year duration - a significant bonus to an area with a particularly distressed economy.

That said, funding for the project continues to be a challenge. Overall, the airport was expecting approximately 30% FAA grant funding for the runway reconstruction, but current circumstances call that amount into question, McCarthy explains. Last year, DTW received $20 million for the project. This year, it applied for $24 million, but has yet to receive a penny. Wayne County Airport Authority officials attribute the funding delays in large part to gridlock in Congress and the subsequent sequestration.

"It has really hurt the FAA's AIP grant program and has presented a serious problem for us," McCarthy laments. "Whereas grants were generally executed in April or May, this year we're looking at an August to September timeframe."

Because FAA grant funds cannot be applied to projects already in process, DTW's situation is even more dire. "Obviously, we couldn't wait," explains McCarthy. 

The airport did, however, receive an allowance to reimburse itself for work completed if grant money becomes available before the end of September, when the FAA's fiscal year ends. If funds do not become available by then, the opportunity for federal contribution this fiscal year will be lost. The airport will be forced to use airport revenue bonds, on which the airlines pay debt service, explains McCarthy. 

"With the FAA funding tower operations through AIP funds, less money for construction projects is available," he adds. "It's a big problem."

On a more positive note, McCarthy and other airport officials are pleased with the results of the project.

"We had a great team that performed very well to mitigate the negative impacts we knew this project was going to have on airport operations," he relates. "I was very impressed with all of our partners."


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