No longer cash-strapped and buried in debt, the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority is ready to embark on a $57 million airfield renewal that will start where the rubber meets the road — literally.
The authority Tuesday approved a five-year capital improvement program that will fund projects at all three Lehigh Valley airports, including replacement of the cracked and pitted runways at Lehigh Valley International Airport.
The plan is an effort to make up for lost time after five years in which the authority had to delay most airport maintenance so it could pay off a $26 million court judgment against it for taking a developer’s land in the 1990s.
The last payment on that debt was in January, so the authority is back in the black. Though the capital plan runs five years, fully half of it will be spent in 2017, beginning with the resurfacing of more than 300 acres – the size of more than 200 football fields – of deteriorating runways, taxiways and parking lots at the main airport in Hanover Township, Lehigh County.
Next year’s projects will also include $10 million to build a bulk hangar designed to help attract more corporate jets.
“The runways are our primary business and they haven’t been resurfaced in 20 years,” said Charles Everett Jr., airport executive director. “It’s about time we reinvest in our primary business.”
LVIA will spend $10 million to build a hangar to attract corporate jets.
The capital plan was reviewed at a meeting in which the authority also approved a $26 million 2017 budget that represents a 13 percent increase over 2016. Some of that would pay for a growing Amazon.com operation that now employs more than 50 workers handling five flights of Amazon consumer goods a day.
Perhaps most encouraging is that the budget projects the airport to end the year with $5 million in the bank – a big turnaround from previous years in which the authority struggled to make annual payments on that court judgment. That surplus allows the authority to not only catch up on maintenance, but to invest in building a large hangar to take advantage of demand from corporate jet owners who want to be based at LVIA.
“We’re not in survival mode anymore,” said J. Michael Dowd, authority board chairman. “We don’t have the sword over our heads the way we have for many years. We have a comfort level in terms of being able to plan for the future.”
The first task will be repairing runways that have become cracked and pitted. The plan calls for a study to begin in January to determine what needs to be done, how to do it and how much it will cost. Then, perhaps as early as next summer, crews will begin resurfacing LVIA’s main runway, the 7,599-foot-long Runway 06/24.
While pilots will continue using Runway 06/24 during the day, crews will complete most of the work for the two-year project at night, Everett said. There will be some periods in which more flights will have to be diverted to LVIA’s secondary runway, the 5,800-foot-long Runway 13/31, Everett said.
Once the main runway is complete, work on Runway 13/31 will begin, probably not until 2019. In the meantime, macadam and concrete work will be done on other roads, taxiways and parking lots at LVIA.
Total airport resurfacing is expected to cost $15 million to $20 million, of which most will be covered by federal grants.
In fact, of the $26.7 million to be spent in 2017 for capital projects and equipment purchases, more than $20 million is expected to be covered by Federal Aviation Administration grants, with about $6 million coming from airport coffers.
Only the cost of study and design of the runway renewal is covered in the five-year plan costs, but the construction money – most funded by grants – would be added to the $57 million plan once detailed estimates are made, Everett said.
Other spending in the capital plan includes $5 million to build a new transportation center where passengers can get to buses, taxis, ride-sharing providers or rental cars just outside the main terminal, and $10 million to build a bulk hangar that can house as many as a half-dozen more corporate jets. LVIA is home to 110 private planes and corporate jets, owned by companies such as D.G. Yuengling & Son of Pottsville, and Air Products and Chemicals Inc.
Other major spending for projects to be done in 2017 at LVIA include $1.4 million to repave the main parking lot and replace the toll booths and $600,000 for elevator and escalator repairs.
Projects at other airports include more than $200,000 to be spent at Queen City Airport in Allentown for storm water management studies needed before the authority can build more hangars there; and $300,000 to demolish and replace the main terminal at Braden Airpark to prepare for a $2.7 million renewal project to added office and retail buildings at the small plane airfield in Forks Township.
More than $1 million will also be spent to replace outdated vehicles including fire trucks, snowplows and maintenance vehicles.
“Clearly, we’ve turned a corner and we’re in a much better position financially than we’ve been in a long time,” Everett said.