Cirrus Aircraft and Coquí Radio Pharmaceuticals could both use the proposed Oak Ridge Airport, a project consultant said Tuesday.
Oak Ridge Today has previously reported that Coquí Radio Pharmaceuticals Corporation could use the airport, which would have a 5,000-foot runway and be located at Heritage Center, the former K-25 site. Coquí has announced plans to build a $500 million medical isotope production facility at Heritage Center.
The company makes medical isotopes with a half-life of 62 hours, airport project consultant Billy Stair said at an Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Tuesday. Using the Oak Ridge Airport, rather than spending 42 minutes driving to McGhee Tyson Airport in Blount County, would save Coquí about $2.3 million per year, Stair said. It would also avoid the loss of about 1,000 doses per day of isotopes used for medical treatments, Stair said.
The Federal Aviation Administration conditionally approved the Oak Ridge Airport in March. That was a very significant step after four years of work, Stair said. The master plan has been approved; the precise location of the runway has been set; and a model of likely traffic has been developed.
As part of the conditional approval, the FAA wants an environmental assessment and a benefit-cost analysis.
Stair said Coquí’s use of the airport would, by itself, almost satisfy the cost-benefit analysis.
But there are some additional steps required for the Coquí project, including licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Coquí’s facility would produce medical isotopes that diagnose and treat diseases, primarily molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which is used in 18 million medical procedures a year in the U.S.
Stair said the airport could be justified without Coquí’s use, but the company is an important part of the cost-benefit analysis. Stair said the cost-benefit analysis is the most complex of the tasks required under the FAA’s conditional approval.
It’s not certain when the airport could open, if it is approved and funded. Stair said Coquí would like to have the airport operating when it begins business in Oak Ridge, but airport officials don’t control parts of the project timeline, including the approval of federal funding.
The information that Stair provided about Cirrus Aircraft possibly using the airport was new.
Stair said Cirrus Aircraft has its delivery headquarters in the Knoxville area, and customers have to go through training. Cirrus would like to use the Oak Ridge Airport, Stair said. That could result in more than 8,000 operations per year. The company could buy fuel at the Oak Ridge Airport, Stair said.
The current estimate of the airport cost is about $53 million. Stair said there is $22 million “in hand” for the project and $11 million more that has been committed. The remaining $20 million could come from the FAA, possibly some time after the design is completed. The Oak Ridge Airport would use a lower percentage of federal funding than normal. Federal funds usually make up about 90 percent of an airport project, Stair said.
Besides the FAA, other direct and indirect funding sources for the airport would include the U.S. Department of Energy, which will provide the land; Appalachian Regional Commission; Tennessee Aeronautics Commission; and Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Oak Ridge Today reported in December 2017 that Tennessee officials had appropriated $15 million that could be used for the proposed airport. That appropriation is pending FAA approval of the Oak Ridge Airport.
Stair has previously said there is no funding from the City of Oak Ridge or Roane County. (Heritage Center is in the Roane County portion of Oak Ridge.)
On Tuesday, Stair said there was a setback that probably delayed the project by about two years. The setback was related to ensuring that were no obstructions, including Highway 58, in trapezoidal runway protection zones. Existing airports, including at McGhee Tyson and in Nashville, have obstructions such as roads in the runway protection zones, so Oak Ridge Airport project officials thought they could get an encroachment waiver. But the FAA rejected an earlier version of the Oak Ridge Airport master plan in the spring of 2017. The FAA wanted no encroachment in the runway protection zones, and when the plan was resubmitted, federal officials wanted the plan to include a potential future expansion to a 6,000-foot runway.
The proposed runway in Oak Ridge has now been moved to the north and west to keep Highway 58 from encroaching in a runway protection zone.
Regarding next steps, Stair said an airport design firm could be hired, possibly later this year, and design work could start after January 1.
The environmental assessment, a parallel project, could also be under way next year. About 80 percent of that work has already been done to prepare for the potential property transfer from DOE to the airport.
The Oak Ridge Airport would be built on about 170 acres of land that would be transferred for the airport on the south side of the Heritage Center, a DOE site in west Oak Ridge. The airport would be used by private planes, including corporate aircraft. It would not be used for commercial passenger planes. It would be the third for the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority. The other two are McGhee Tyson in Blount County and Downtown Island in Knoxville.
Pointing out the challenging nature of the project, Stair said the FAA has not approved a new general aviation airport, as opposed to a replacement, in the United States for the past 25 years. The Oak Ridge Airport is a difficult but not impossible project, he said. The project is about “halfway home,” but there is still a long way to go, Stair said.
See previous story here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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