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Airport runway study nears completion

Airport runway study nears completion
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Proposed Extension: The airport’s main runway runs from left to right in this photo, with one end just across First Street S from the university. The city is studying the feasibility of extending the runway 1,300 to 1,800 feet to the east (right in the photo).
[Courtesy of Google Maps]

A city study that could have implications for the long-term growth of USF St. Petersburg is still two or three months from completion.

The study centers on the main runway at Albert Whitted Airport. Because the airport is so close to the university, campus buildings beneath its flight path cannot exceed certain heights.

Advocates of the airport have proposed that the southwest-to-northeast runway be extended 1,300 to 1,800 feet to the east, into Tampa Bay.

That would mean larger airplanes could use the airport, said airport manager Richard Lesniak. It might also mean that takeoffs and landings could be moved to the east, enhancing what he called “vertical development” of airport neighbors like the university.

In November 2015, the City Council authorized a $50,000 study to explore the feasibility of extending the runway. The study was expected to take several months.

Fourteen months later, however, the study is still not complete. Lesniak said he now expects it to be finished in two or three months.

The study took much longer than expected, he said, because of other airport enhancements – rehabilitation of the two runways, work on hangars and construction of a new hangar.

“Because this is a precursor study, there’s not a real push to get it done within a certain amount of time,” said Lesniak. “It’s allowed us to breathe a little bit with other things on the front burner.”

Even if the study finds the runway extension feasible, Lesniak said, that would be only the first part of a very long process that he estimated would take five or six years.

The next step would be presenting the study’s findings to the City Council. Before construction could begin, Albert Whitted would need to create a master plan, a step mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and clear environmental hurdles.

Some council members have already signaled they might oppose the runway extension.

When the council authorized the study, three members – Steven Kornell, Darden Rice and Karl Nurse – voiced concerns about the proposal.

Kornell said he didn’t want to vote for a project that would damage the environment, and Rice said she didn’t think the extension would be popular among residents.

Albert Whitted could not move forward with any plans without FAA approval. The airport must provide the organization with a master plan. Lesniak said that the airport’s last master plan was completed in 2007 and the next one will be laid out in 2018.

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