Now measuring 5,500 feet, the Sussex County Airport’s runway will soon undergo even more improvements in the second phase of a major extension project.

Now measuring 5,500 feet, the Sussex County Airport’s runway will soon undergo even more improvements in the second phase of a major extension project.

The extended runway has been in use since September 2013, according to Airport Manager Jim Hickin. That initial phase of the project included the addition of 500 feet to the runway, as well as improvements to the airport’s approach, or runway visibility, through 38 acres of tree removal and upgrades to lighting and pavement striping.

Included in the second phase, set to begin in the coming weeks and last about 100 days, is the milling and paving of the original 5,000 feet of runway.

“The pavement is over 20 years old so it’s starting to reach the end of its useful life,” Hickin said.

The second phase will also include installation of the new approach lighting system and restriping of the entire runway.

The airport will remain open during that project, using an auxiliary 3,100-foot runway which can handle smaller aircraft. Larger planes, however, will be forced to land at other airports in the area.

In total, the runway extension project cost about $8.1 million, 90 percent of which was funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The goal, according to Hickin, is to increase the probability of an aircraft being able to land in Sussex County during a bad weather event. Hickin said if a pilot cannot see a runway, they can’t land their plane. He added that visibility is especially crucial as a plane gets closer to the ground.

6,000 feet?

Next on the agenda is another 500-foot extension, bringing the runway out to 6,000 feet and theoretically attracting larger aircraft to Sussex County. However this extension requires much more work and money, as it would require the realignment of Park Avenue and state acquisition of about 50 acres of fields and woodlands, totaling anywhere from $5 million to $10 million, which would be covered by the Delaware Department of Transportation. Construction of the runway extension is estimated to cost around $5 million.

The airport, county and state were banking on the FAA’s continued financial support for the second extension; however they hit a roadblock about three years ago.

According to Hickin, the airport was not able to justify the extra length based on its current traffic.

“The project is eligible for FAA funding if it meets the criteria for the most demanding aircraft using the airport regularly,” Hickin said.

Essentially, there aren’t enough large aircraft that would utilize 6,000 feet currently landing at and taking off from the Sussex County Airport.

Funding issues

If the FAA will not help fund the project, the cost would fall entirely on the county. The Sussex County Council has already set aside a $3 million for the project; but is tasked with finding that additional $2 million.

“We want to add onto the runway to bring in bigger planes that would benefit existing businesses and attract new businesses,” said Councilman Mike Vincent. “The downside is the FAA doesn’t concern itself with economic development. They’re strictly about the size of the runway and the planes that use it.”

In a meeting last week with Hickin, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said everyone should keep in mind the lesson learned from the movie “Field of Dreams.”

“If you build it, they will come,” Carper said.

Road realignment

Before any further construction can begin on the runway, DelDOT must realign Park Avenue and state officials say that may not happen until after 2020 if Gov. Jack Markell’s proposed gas tax is not approved by the General Assembly.

“The governor proposed for the coming fiscal year a gasoline tax increase of 10 cents per gallon to be matched with an equivalent amount of borrowing on DelDOT’s part to make statewide transportation investments,” said Geoff Sundstrom, spokesman for DelDOT. “The start time of the Park Avenue realignment is contingent on the availability of funds.”

Self-promotion

Hickin said the airport is exploring ways to promote itself and possibly attract more aircraft to its runway, including a possible rebranding and name change as well as a business partnership with FedEx that would have additional small planes flying in and out of Sussex County.

Although the FedEx agreement would not increase the airport’s numbers to meet FAA minimums for funding, Carper said he thinks it would be good for the airport’s reputation.

“It starts a little bit of a buzz and gives us a good talking point when we’re out there trying to convince other folks to use the runway,” he said.

Scott Fiedler, a spokesman for FedEx, said the company does not comment on ongoing discussions or developments.