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Madison County Executive Airport Runway Extension Project Description and Evaluation 

Madison County Executive Airport History

About 1990, the Madison County Commission retained a consultant company to determine if Huntsville Airport North, an existing privately-owned general aviation facility, could be expanded to accommodate the intermediate and long term needs of the general aviation community of the County. The consultant produced an environmental assessment of the proposed expansion. An Adobe Acrobat (pdf) file of this report is available at the Madison County Executive Airport Authority (MCEAA) website
http://www.mceaa.org/library.  The MCEAA website also includes a history of subsequent earmarks and funding that lead to the completion of a 5,000-foot runway in 2001.  To date, over $12,000,000 in grants and matching funds have been spent on the new runway and other improvements.

 The FAA was directed to provide $1,140,000 for the Madison County Executive Airport Authority (MCEAA) in Meridianville, AL by the Division I - Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2009, Title I - Department of Transportation under Grants-in-Aid for Airports for High Priority projects. According to an April, 2009 local newspaper article, these earmarked funds along with Airport Improvement Program Discretionary funds will be used to extend a 5,000-foot runway to 6,500 feet plus relocate a road and remove eight houses. According to the newspaper article, the extension project will cost about $8,000,000. According to an OST Grant Detail Report of AIP Approved Grants between 10/1/08 and 8/31/09, $272,419 has been approved for this project so far.

  The preliminary plan is here .

DISCUSSION

According to FAA  information, AIP discretionary grant applications are evaluated based on need, the FAA’s project priority ranking system and the FAA’s assessment of a project’s significance within the national airport and airway system. The following discussion and observations are based on a review of the 1991 environmental assessment for Huntsville Airport North, now known as Madison County Executive Airport (MCEA), the 2009 supplemental environmental assessment for the MCEA runway extension project and review of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) documents. There were also written and verbal communications with the FAA Jackson Airports District Office and conversations with fixed base operators at Huntsville-Madison International Airport and Pryor Field Regional Airport near Decatur, AL.

There is no need to extend the Madison County Executive Airport (MCEA) runway to 6,500 feet.

According to the environmental assessments submitted by Madison County Executive Airport Authority (MCEAA) in 1991 and 2009, there were 50,577operations in 1991 on a 3,700-foot runway and about 31,460 in 2008 on the 5,000-foot runway. That is about a 38 percent decrease in 17 years.

In review comments on the 1991 environmental assessment, the Alabama Aeronautics Department (now Bureau of Aeronautics) commented there was no justification at that time for constructing a 6,500-foot runway. The only thing that has changed since then is that there are fewer operations at MCEA.

The fixed base operator at Huntsville-Madison International Airport said operations were running at about 30 percent of capacity in June 2009 and hangar space was available. In the last 10 years, operations at the Huntsville-Madison International Airport have decreased sharply (the FAA knows that because it is their business to know those things).  According to statistics on the airport website, air carrier operations have decreased 28 percent, general aviation operations have decreased 36 percent and total operations have decreased 19 percent. 

Pryor Field is about three miles from Decatur that has industries like United Space Alliance, NUCOR, GE Appliances, 3M and Daiken. Pryor Field is adjacent to Calhoun Community College and the Alabama Robotics Technology Park and is across Highway 31 from a large (about 800,000 square feet) manufacturing facility with a railroad spur once occupied by Saginaw Steering Gear. Pryor Field now has farmland on three sides but development is moving toward Pryor Field from the Huntsville area. Funds being considered for MCEA should be used to acquire property and easements that will permit improvements to Pryor Field when needed.

Extending a runway does not increase the number of operations the MCEA or the Huntsville area air transportation facilities can support. Only one aircraft at a time can use a runway. Increasing the number of runways, not extending their length, is the way to accommodate growth in air traffic. Huntsville-Madison International Airport has space allocated for additional runways that can be constructed without relocating roads and moving homes.

The MCEA is functioning safely now as a general aviation airport and accommodates several types of corporate jets and propeller aircraft. In a letter dated August 25, 2009,  the Jackson Airports District Office stated "the airport authority has been working with our office for many years to provide a safe and adequate airport to support the existing and forecasted aviation demands of the Meridianville business and local community." That mission was accomplished in 2001.  The Meridianville community is composed of residential areas and retail establishments. That composition is not likely to change. As noted above, the number of operations at MCEA decreased between 1991 and 2008 while the population of the Meridianville area increased.

Based on the items above, there is ample runway capacity at convenient locations in the Huntsville metropolitan area for aircraft that are too large to land on the 5,000-foot runway at the MCEA. Spending tax money to extend the MCEA runway to 6,500 feet is not justified.

Extending the MCEA runway to 6,500 feet is not cost effective.

A significant portion of project cost will be used on non-airport infrastructure to build about one mile of new road, relocate a water line and purchase and remove eight substantial homes. This results in 1,500 feet of runway costing about $8,000,000 which is unacceptable.  A more effective use of Federal funds now in the Huntsville metropolitan area is to secure additional property around Pryor Field Regional Airport to prevent future construction and development from hindering improvements to that airport when needed. Pryor Field is now enclosed by farmland on three sides.

For all airport projects, FAA funding should be limited to actual airport infrastructure (runways, taxiways, navigation equipment, lighting and the like) and require the local governments to fund relocating roads, moving homes and the like. This would accomplish two things. One is to show that the whole community (not just airport authority members and aircraft owners) believes the project is of real value to the community and worth putting up local tax money to pay for it. The other is that more money would be available for more air transportation improvement projects that more directly improve airport infrastructure and the air transportation system.

There are more social impacts than recognized by the MCEAA and FAA.

The 1991 environmental assessment final report (review and comments are here ) and the initial master plan for the Executive Airport showed only one home was to be removed south of Meridianville Bottom Road.   The runway expansion will cause eight families to sell their homes.  Only one of the eight homeowners had their home on the market.  One homeowner had just completed doubling the size of his detached garage.  

The runway expansion will decrease the quality of life and property values of remaining homeowners because of higher noise levels from larger aircraft and the decreased distance between the runway and their homes.  

Rerouting of Meridianville Bottom Road will be expensive (about one mile of new road) and will create dangerous intersections on curves for Lewis Tate Road and the airport access road.

Rerouting Meridianville Bottom Road will add 0.7 mile of length to the road.  The Madison County Executive Airport Authority had a traffic count on Meridianville Bottom Road that was made about February 20, 2009.  This traffic count was not included in the social impact portion of the supplemental environmental assessment, as I believe it should have been.  The FAA has a copy of it.  The traffic count should be used in any cost/benefit analysis.  A little arithmetic shows a considerable negative impact on motorists using Meridianville Bottom Road (a major rural collector).  There was an average of 7,623 trips per weekday using this road.  Assuming 2,540 trips per day on the weekend (one-third of weekday use) gives 43,195 trips per week or 2,246,000 trips per year.  The 0.7-mile increase in driving distance on the relocated Meridianville Bottom Road will result in about 1,572,000 miles per year of additional driving; about 34,900 hours of additional driving time per year (at 45 miles per hour); and about 58,200 additional gallons of gasoline consumed per year (at 27 miles per gallon).  If motorists were reimbursed for the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile at the IRS rate of 55 cents per mile and for their time at $18.40 per hour (average wage in Alabama) the annual cost would be $1,506,000 just for the convenience of a few aircraft owners and pilots.

The FAA exhibits no understanding of industrial development and transportation facilities in the Huntsville metropolitan area.
 

Pryor Field Regional Airport near Decatur, AL has a 6,100-foot runway. The fixed base operator at Pryor Field estimated there are from 20 to 100 operations per day.   Most residential and nearly all industrial development is occurring west and southwest of Huntsville along interstate highway I-565 and highway 72 west.  Most lodging and restaurants are in that area too.  That is the area where Federal Funding should be concentrated.  Madison is the fastest growing city in Alabama.  The Executive Airport is north of downtown Huntsville.  Pryor Field is more convenient to Madison and Huntsville-Madison International Airport than the Executive Airport is.  A chart showing driving distances and times from the three airports in the Huntsville metropolitan area to locations business executives and government officials are most likely to visit is here.  Please note that the Madison County Executive Airport has a shorter drive time to only one location and in most cases has a longer drive time that either of the other two airports. 
 

Summary

The runway extension project will create long-lasting problems for homeowners near the Madison County Executive Airport and motorists using Meridianville Bottom Road. The runway extension project will not fill any need or provide any benefits that cannot be satisfied by other means at less taxpayer expense.

Contact List

Contact information for elected, Federal and appointed officials is here along with The Huntsville Times address. 

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