Despite some ups and downs over the years, smooth landings are expected when the Provo Municipal Airport's new and improved runway reopens later this year.
Construction crews are nearing the end of a runway extension project that took off, conceptually anyway, more than seven years ago.The finished airstrip on the banks of Utah Lake will be 8,600 feet in length - 1,500 feet longer than the old one - with 1,000-foot by 500-foot safety zones at both ends. It's expected to be open for traffic in late November or early December, said Mel Leseberg, airport manager.
"Basically, we're progressing on schedule," he said.
The project has encountered some turbulence since it was first announced in 1991, mostly in the form of Provo resident Lillian Hayes. A member of the Mount Timpanogos Audubon Society, Hayes is a steadfast defender of migratory birds that come to roost on the lake shore.
"I just didn't think it was right to move into the edge of Provo Bay like they did," she said.
After years of pestering government officials, particularly former airport manager Jim Mathis, and with little to show for her efforts, Hayes eventually gave up.
"I just had to let them go. What can you do?" she shrugs. "We did our best to protect the birds."
Extending the runway to the northwest wiped out 60 acres of wildlife habitat and vegetation and forced relocation of the dike around the airport. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers labeled the acreage "low-value" wetlands, a designation disputed by local biologists. The area is home to 200 bird species, the endangered June sucker and a wide variety of plants.
To make up for the loss, Provo and the Federal Aviation Administration created a 146-acre wetlands preserve south of East Bay Golf Course and just west of I-15. Officials say blue herons and Canada geese will find it as attractive as the lake.
Environmental assessments for the runway plan took more than three years to complete, slowing the project's construction time line. It probably would have taken longer had Hayes been successful in her push for a full-blown environmental impact study. Construction crews also had to work around the June suckers' spawning season, curtailing work between May and October.
As plans changed, building costs escalated well beyond the $5 million initial estimate. The final price tag is about $16 million, Leseberg said. The FAA paid 91 percent while Provo and the state split the difference.
The longer airstrip forced neighboring Utah Lake State Park to alter plans for a new campground on its south side. Land was cleared for 55 campsites on the north side instead, prompting a mild protest from Provo High School's Environmental Club several years ago.
Students feared campers would displace wildlife along the lake.
The state park also will be impacted by aircraft takeoffs and landings. The extended runway will cause airplanes to fly lower over the recreation area.
Construction has temporarily closed the airport's primary strip. Instead of taking off and coming in over the lake, planes are buzzing west Provo and south Orem neighborhoods.
"We get quite a few noise complaints. That will go away when the runway opens up," Leseberg said.
When it reopens, the longer airstrip will allow jets fully loaded with fuel to fly nonstop from Provo to any destination in the continental United States, Leseberg said.
The old runway wasn't long enough for large planes to leave the ground with full tanks, especially in the summer when temperatures soar and the air is dense.
City officials believe the new runway coupled with a sophisticated air-traffic control system will make Provo attractive to a commercial airline. Mayor Lewis Billings formed a committee to study the possibility and the city has had at least one meeting with an interested carrier.