Crews began moving earth Monday at Lawrence Municipal Airport in a dash to complete $1.9 million in improvements before the Winston Cup NASCAR race.
Airport officials expect a fleet of private jets for the big race and qualifying runs in nearby Wyandotte County the weekend of Sept. 28-30.
Hamm Construction workers began the first phase of the project to reinforce and smooth the airport's main runway and nearly double the space to park airplanes.
"They understand how important it is to us to have this done on time," Rick Bryant said of the construction companies, which face penalties if the work isn't complete on schedule.
Bryant is chair of the city's Aviation Advisory Board. He said plans call for a 13,000-square-yard expansion of the airport apron to be completed by mid-September.
Repaving of the facility's main runway is to be finished Sept. 24, just two days before airport officials expect planes to start arriving for the NASCAR event.
If the work isn't completed on time, Bryant said the airport would still be operational for the big weekend. But, he said, airport officials are hoping to have the construction finished because they want to make a good first impression with NASCAR teams that could spend lots of money on fuel and hangar rentals year after year.
"If we could get even just 30 jets in here for race weekend, that means we could sell 60,000 gallons of fuel at about $2.65 a gallon, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that is a pretty good weekend," Bryant said.
Joe Gibbs Racing already has reserved space for his NASCAR team and its three jets to land at the airport on race weekend, and Bryant said another team, the name of which he wouldn't disclose, also has reserved space. He said a third "major team" has tentatively agreed to use the Lawrence airport.
Bryant said that he and airport facility operator Lloyd Hetrick are expecting more reservations as race day nears. Hetrick's company sent out 400 information sheets to NASCAR teams about the Lawrence airport.
"We're not doing this exclusively for the Kansas Speedway," Bryant said of the improvements. "We're doing it for the overall good of the city. But we think with the timing of it, we are in a good position to capitalize on the raceway and win some customers that will come back year after year."
The apron expansion will allow 50 to 60 planes to park at the facility, which before was only possible if the airport closed its second runway and allowed planes to park on it.
At some point during the construction, the airport will be closed to all air traffic for 36 hours. Bryant said a date hasn't been set for the closing but that it would occur before the end of September. The area aviation community will be given about 10 days' notice of the closing, he said.
Grant picks up most of tab
A grant from the Federal Aviation Administration is paying for 90 percent of the project's cost, with the city picking up the remaining $195,000. Also scheduled to be completed this year is $1.1 million worth of taxiway improvements at the airport. The FAA has not officially awarded that money to the city, Assistant City Manager Debbie Van Saun said. She said she expects an approval notice in the next 30 days.
"The FAA seemed to be very optimistic that we would receive it," Van Saun said.
This week's work represents what airport officials hope will be the first of two phases of improvements funded by the FAA. City officials hope for an FAA grant in early 2002 to allow construction to begin in spring 2002 on a 700-foot expansion of the main runway, which will allow for larger jets to land.
The FAA estimates that the airport currently has an average of 100 "flight operations" per day, which includes all takeoffs, landings and flight instruction exercises. Bryant said city officials couldn't yet estimate how much the improvements would increase airport traffic.
"When that runway project is finished, we should be able to handle about 90 to 95 percent of all the types of business jets that are in the air," Bryant said.
Extending the runway as planned will cause the Union Pacific Railroad to rethink a plan to reroute the railroad out of North Lawrence to a location north of the airport, Bryant said.
The runway expansion eliminates the possibility of the railroad building its line on airport property because the tracks would be too close to the runway to meet FAA safety standards. Bryant said UP officials instead would look at a deal with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the railroad along the Mud Creek levee or else run the line north of the creek.
UP officials last year began talking about moving the railroad north of the city limits but have never announced formal plans to start the project.
City officials plan an airport groundbreaking ceremony at 3 p.m. Aug. 21 at the airport. Congressman Dennis Moore, who sponsored legislation to secure the FAA funding, is scheduled to attend.