KINGSTON—Tennessee officials have appropriated $15 million that could be used for the proposed airport at Heritage Center, the former K-25 site in west Oak Ridge.
The appropriation, which is pending approval of the Oak Ridge Airport by the Federal Aviation Administration, would be enough to cover about 33 percent to 38 percent of the current estimated project cost of $40 million to $45 million.
The appropriation was announced by Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John C. Schroer in a November 8 letter to members of the Tennessee General Assembly. Oak Ridge Today received a copy of the letter on Monday.
The $15 million that could be used for the Oak Ridge Airport is one half of a $30 million appropriation approved by the Tennessee General Assembly for the Aeronautics Economic Development Fund earlier this year, said Billy Stair, a former communications director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who is now a consultant helping with the airport project. That half was to support the construction of new general aviation airports like the project in Oak Ridge, and Oak Ridge received all of the $15 million for general aviation airports, Stair said.
“MKAA (Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority) is the only public entity in the state with planning documents for a new airport currently under review,” Schroer said in his November letter to legislators. The $15 million will be allocated to the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority, which would own and operate the Oak Ridge Airport, pending FAA approval.
The other half of the $30 million was allocated to the state’s commercial airports.
Stair gave an update on the airport project to Roane County officials at the Roane County Courthouse in Kingston on Thursday. He said significant progress has been made, but the project is not yet a “done deal.”
The project is “sitting on” $18.2 million, including the $15 million state appropriation and $3.2 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission for design work, Stair said. And there are “good-faith commitments” of another $15 million, Stair said.
That means there is about $33 million to $34 million available for the project, according to a conservative estimate, Stair said.
“I was proud to make the case to the governor and my fellow legislators for this much-needed appropriation,” Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, said of the state money on Monday. “There is clearly a compelling need in the community for the Oak Ridge Airport Initiative. I appreciate the governor including $15 million for the project in his budget and an additional $15 million in the amendment. While more funding will be needed for completion of the project, this is an important first step. I am looking forward to working with the governor, my fellow legislators, the airport authority, and local officials to make this dream a reality.”
The amendment that cited the Oak Ridge Airport, Amendment 14, was included in an appropriations bill that passed the Tennessee General Assembly in May and was signed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.
Tennessee Representative John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican whose district includes most of Anderson County, said he and others met with Haslam before the final vote and advocated for including “this particular item.”
“Oak Ridge is the only city its size in Tennessee that does not have a municipal general aviation airport,” Ragan said Sunday. “It is obvious that this fact alone, even without elaboration, hampers our city’s, our region’s, and our state’s economic development.”
The lack of an adequate general aviation airport will limit the kind of potential companies that Oak Ridge can attract to Heritage Center, also known as East Tennessee Technology Park, when it is cleaned up and converted into a private industrial park, Ragan said.
“Such a limitation eliminates potential prosperity connected with ‘tier one,’ high-tech companies insistent on a nearby, general aviation airport,” Ragan said. “Furthermore, this, in turn, limits prosperity not just for Oak Ridge, but also the region and the state.”
Ragan said he has been advocating for the airport in the General Assembly for a “number of years.”
“However, as you know, no single legislator can directly control more than his or her own vote,” Ragan said. “Consequently, let me hasten to say that I had also been trying to influence a number of my colleagues to support the airport. Moreover, a number of other people have also been advocating for this airport.”
Stair said most airports receive 90 percent federal funding and 10 percent local. This project is different, he said. The FAA share of the Oak Ridge Airport would be much smaller, and it would be the difference between the roughly $33.2 million that has been secured and the total project cost, Stair said in response to follow-up questions on Monday.
“We do not currently know the precise project cost,” Stair said. “That will depend on the final runway alignment, which determines the amount of dirt that must be moved. We are in discussions with FAA on that issue. $40 million-45 million is a reasonable estimate at this time.”
On Thursday, Stair said the Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing a master plan for the airport but has not yet approved the proposal. That’s the main hurdle now. It’s not clear when the FAA might make a decision.
“I think there is a good chance of getting this airport, but it is not a done deal,” Stair told Roane County officials.
Airport project officials met with senior FAA officials in Washington, D.C., in October. One of the major issues then was what are known as runway protection zones, Stair said. Those are trapezoidal areas along the runway approach and departure paths.
“They don’t want any kind of obstruction in that runway protection zone,” Stair said. Obstructions could include, for example, a cell phone tower—or a highway. But Highway 58 in west Oak Ridge has encroached on about 150 feet, or roughly 3 percent, of the runway protection zones, Stair said.
Project officials and designers planned to meet Friday morning, December 8, to work on moving the 5,000-foot runway about 150 feet north and 200 feet west to ensure there are no obstructions in the runway protection zones. But moving the runway is expected to add to the airport cost, although it’s not clear how much it might change. There is a hillside of up to about 60 feet in the area of the airport. The airport would be on the south side of Heritage Center along Highway 58, and land will have to be cleared and dirt moved for the project.
Stair there is no funding from the City of Oak Ridge or Roane County. (Heritage Center is in the Roane County portion of Oak Ridge.)
“There is no financial exposure for either the city or county,” Stair said.
The Oak Ridge Airport would be the third for the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority. The other two are McGhee Tyson in Blount County and Downtown Island in Knoxville.
The FAA has included the project in the National Program of Integrated Airport Systems. That means it’s eligible for FAA funding, Stair said.
Besides the FAA, other direct and indirect funding sources include the U.S. Department of Energy, which will provide the land; Appalachian Regional Commission; Tennessee Aeronautics Commission; and Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Stair said the free land is very significant, and it could be the difference in this project. At most airports, land or site preparation is usually worth about $10 million, he said. The land in Oak Ridge will transfer as soon as the FAA gives the “green light” to the project, Stair said. The MKAA submitted an application to DOE for the transfer of 171 acres at Heritage Center in June 2013.
The airport land would be adjacent to parcels owned by the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee, which started the airport project with a request to MKAA in 2009. CROET redevelops former federal property for private commercial and industrial use. Stair has said the project has involved a large number of local, state, and federal “stakeholders,” and it has broad political support, including from the state’s governor and legislative delegation, Oak Ridge City Council and Roane County Commission, state and federal agencies, the business community, and regional pilots.
The TAC, which funded development of an airport master plan, has provided $450,000 for the project, Stair said, and the ARC has provided the $3.2 million for design work.
“That’s in the drawer,” Stair said of the ARC funding. He said U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, was very helpful with the special ARC appropriation.
The project is now in the last of three phases, Stair said Thursday. DOE found no significant impact in January 2016, and the master plan was developed in April of this year. Other additional steps include securing funding sources, transferring the land, and construction.
There are other issues being worked on in the meantime, including the relocation of Haul Road and Blair Road at ETTP, a building demolition schedule at Heritage Center, issues related to Tennessee Valley Authority power lines, and moving DOE information technology buildings that serve the Oak Ridge Reservation.
Among the justifications for the project have been accommodating aircraft in the region and making the industrial parks in west Oak Ridge more attractive.
MKAA President Bill Marrison said there is a waiting list of more than 100 pilots at Downtown Island in Knoxville, which has a 3,500-foot runway. There could be 38 aircraft in Oak Ridge in the first year, which is a high number, Marrison said Thursday.
“It helps us accommodate the region,” Marrison said previously, pointing out that airplane hangars are full at McGhee Tyson Airport and at Downtown Island Airport.
Regarding economic development, Stair said one company that has announced plans to build a manufacturing facility in Oak Ridge could have 350-400 flights in its first year. That company, Coquí RadioPharmaceutical, has medical isotopes with a half-life of 36 hours, officials said Thursday, and the company’s plans to invest here are reported to have a lot to do with the proposed airport.
Wade Creswell, president and chief executive officer of The Roane Alliance, Roane County’s economic development organization, said the airport would take the site to a “whole new level.”
Heritage Center is being converted from a federal site that once enriched uranium for atomic weapons and commercial nuclear power plants to a private industrial park. The uranium enrichment operations have been shut down for about three decades, and DOE wants the industrial park to succeed, Stair said. An airport could make a difference, he said. Heritage Center has access to rail lines and barges, there are freeways nearby and utilities available, and the area of the former K-25 Building will be part of the relatively new Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
The Oak Ridge Airport could accommodate general aviation and corporate aircraft but not airlines. The runway could run roughly parallel to State Route 58. Airport construction could take about 1.5 years, Marrison said earlier this year.
The FAA has already approved the site, Marrison said.
Stair said a sophisticated noise analysis has been done already, but the FAA would likely do its own study. Airport project representatives have already met with residents in the area of Whippoorwill Drive in west Oak Ridge. On Thursday, project representatives said any noise from the airport would be lower in volume in that area than the noise from a weedeater or lawn mower. A resident living four miles from the airport would hear airplanes, but the sounds would not be intrusive, Marrison said.
Roane County Commissioner Steve Kelley, who lives in west Oak Ridge and represents District 4, said the airport would be about four miles or so from the nearest residence. District 4 includes Oak Hills, Oliver Springs, and Orchard View.
“I think the benefits far outweigh any issues,” Kelley said.
See the TDOT letter announcing the $15 million appropriation that could be used for the Oak Ridge Airport here.
See the state appropriations legislation that includes an amendment for the Oak Ridge Airport project here.
See the amendment, Amendment 14, here.
See the environmental assessment here.
See our previous story from March here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
Do you appreciate this story or our work in general? If so, please consider a monthly subscription to Oak Ridge Today. See our Subscribe page here. Thank you for reading Oak Ridge Today.
Copyright 2017 Oak Ridge Today. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.