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City, county may ask congress help on getting runway operational

Runway 1-19 Coast Guard Elizabeth City

Columns of weeds continue growing through Runway 1-19, the secondary, closed runway serving US Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City and the Elizabeth City Regional Airport. Coast Guard and airport officials have been hoping to repair the runway for years, but a deal to lease the runway and open up state funding for repairs has been under Coast Guard review for 18 months and counting.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County officials may soon look for a “political solution” — help from Congress — to put a defunct runway at the Elizabeth City Regional Airport back into service.

Airport Authority members offered support Wednesday for city and county staff to lobby North Carolina’s U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, plus some House representatives, to push forward the repair and reopening of Runway 1-19, one of two runways at U.S. Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City. The Coast Guard shares use of its runways with the adjoining regional airport, but closed 1-19 years ago after it deteriorated beyond safe use for even civilian aircraft, let alone heavy military planes from the Coast Guard or other branches who pass through the airport for refueling. That’s left the base and the airport relying on a single runway, 10-28, for all takeoffs and landings.

State and local officials have long sought to repair the runway, and N.C. Department of Transportation leaders offered as far back as 2014 to put millions of dollars towards repairing the runway. In exchange for repairing a federal asset, however, they want a long-term lease that guarantees civilian, “general aviation” uses of the runway.

Those lease talks have long been in limbo, and the airport’s engineering consultant, Tim Gruebel, of Parrish and Partners, reported another complication during Wednesday’s airport meeting.

He explained that, after a meeting Tuesday with Base Elizabeth City Cmdr. Randy Meador and Capt. Joseph Deer, commanding officer of the Air Station, the Coast Guard wants the runway restored with a width of 150 feet. Deer emphasized he wanted the runway to be that wide for Coast Guard operational purposes, and, if the state committed to repair it to that standard, he would back the lease to his superiors, Gruebel explained.

Airport Manager Gordon Rowell explained after the meeting that previously the state has proposed repairing the runway to a width of 75 or 100 feet, at a total cost estimated between $8 million and $10 million.

Gruebel continued Wednesday that repairing that width of runway could add $3 million to project costs, and 150 feet would be more than needed for general aviation purposes. State officials likely won’t support that, but he and the airport could try to make a case for it.

City Manager Rich Olson had unusually sharp words for the Coast Guard at Wednesday’s meeting, describing their position on the lease as “totally unreasonable in what their demands are for the runway.” He said the N.C. Division of Aviation has made a “substantial commitment” to repairing the runway, adding that Deer considered it “critical” to his operation.

Olson also said it would be a “win-win” for the state to pay $6 million for the repair, and the Coast Guard to pay $3 million.

Meador, an ex-officio member of the authority, said Coast Guard dollars couldn’t be mixed with state dollars for the project, and said the lease might also need another legal review.

Gruebel noted Wednesday that, if the Coast Guard did try to fund the repairs, it would take five to seven years to do, and would cost millions of dollars more than what the state would spend.

To resolve the impasse, Olson asked authority members’ blessing to lobby Tillis and Burr for federal appropriations for the runway. He said he and County Manager Sparty Hammett were already lobbying Washington officials on other purposes, including for economic development.

Olson also noted Pasquotank County doesn’t have a House representative now, due to the pending special election to replace the late Rep. Walter Jones, so he and authority members suggested lobbying Reps. David Price and GK Butterfield for help instead.

In pushing for reopening Runway 1-19, airport officials have long argued it would benefit not only local aviators and the area’s economy, but Coast Guard operations in the long term. It would be important to have a backup runway in case 10-28 had to be shut down, such as for major repairs. Such a project is being contemplated around 2023, Gruebel noted Wednesday.

He added that, without 1-19 as a backup for 10-28, “ECSU and the airport are kind of dead in the water.” He was referring to Elizabeth City State University’s use of the airport for its aviation program.

Meador cautioned it was unlikely 10-28 repairs would shut down the entire runway for long periods of time.

As a further compromise, Gruebel and airport members also discussed repairing Runway 1-19 in phases, gradually widening it to 150 feet over several years.

Asked Thursday if they’d support that approach, Meador and Deer declined to say. In a short statement, Meador wrote the Coast Guard remains in early stages of validating Runway 1-19’s operational requirements, and didn’t yet have a formal cost estimate for its recapitalization.

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