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Efforts to expand Pullman-Moscow airport runway hit snag

Photo courtesy of the Moscow-Pullman Airport.

Photo by Cherri Gentry of the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport.

Plans to expand the runway at the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport have run into a snag, as the proposal could lead to the demolition of dozens of buildings at Washington State University.

The airport needs to lengthen and widen its main runway under Federal Aviation Administration rules because it is being served by larger planes, airport manager Tony Bean said.

An offer by the airport to buy about 100 acres of land from WSU to accommodate the larger runway was rejected because the land includes about 40 buildings involved in millions of dollars’ worth of research.

The university is preparing a counter-offer, and both sides are trying to work out a deal.

The stakes are high for travelers in these remote college towns. The airport is a major transportation lifeline for Pullman, home to Washington State, and Moscow, Idaho, home to the University of Idaho. There is no interstate highway or passenger train service near the towns, which straddle the border about 300 miles east of Seattle.

“If we don’t realign the runway, the consequence is a loss of air service,” Bean said.

The towns, with a combined population of about 50,000 people, are served by Alaska Airlines with three incoming flights from Seattle and three outgoing flights to Seattle each day. About 50,000 people boarded planes at the airport last year, and the number is projected to reach 60,000 this year.

The problem is the airport was built to handle the old 19-seat propeller planes that were major commuter aircraft in the past. But Alaska serves the airport with 76-seat Bombardier Q400 planes. The airport is also sometimes used by Boeing 737 charter planes delivering college sports teams.

The larger planes have larger wingspans, which makes it impossible to use the existing runway and taxiway at the same time. That is a violation of FAA rules, and the airport is operating under an FAA waiver that allows operations to continue only while a solution is being pursued, Bean said.

Plans call for increasing the runway from 100 to 150 feet wide, and from 6,730 feet to 7,100 feet long, Bean said. That work will require that the runway be realigned about 5 degrees, meaning some 40 WSU buildings and other facilities will suddenly find themselves at the end of the pavement.

The FAA would prefer there be no buildings in the so-called runway protection zone, Bean said, hence the push to remove those structures, which include laboratory buildings, animal pens, large equipment storage sheds and other buildings.

Both sides insist they want to settle the dispute.

“We’re trying very hard not to make it a controversy,” said Olivia Wang, a vice president of WSU.

But she said the research being conducted in those buildings, especially in the area of food safety, is important.

Ideally, WSU would like to sell the land to the airport for an amount that allows it to replace the buildings and other research facilities that will be lost, Wang said. She estimated that the impacted area has drawn $100 million in research dollars since 2006.

Washington State University is the largest employer in Pullman-Moscow, and a heavy user of the airport.

“‘We would all benefit from better air service,” Wang said.

The new runway is expected to cost some $100 million, the vast majority paid by federal funds.

The airport has already received some funding from the FAA and will start moving dirt on property it already owns in early July.

One option for the airport is to invoke eminent domain status, but Bean said it’s too early to say if that is needed.

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