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Sluggish growth stalls Anchorage airport plans for new runway

Jerzy Shedlock

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport officials announced Thursday at a public open house that preparations to expand the state’s key transportation hub are moving forward using a slower, phased approach due to stunted growth and declining cargo. Immediate plans to build a new runway have been shelved.

The new approach – dubbed demand-dependent – will be detailed in the airport’s draft master plan. Thursday night’s open house was held to update the public about the plan, which is supposed to be overhauled every five to seven years. The plan has stirred controversy over fears that an airport expansion would reroute the beloved Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which hugs the Anchorage coastline just beyond the airport’s current boundaries.

The draft plan for future development will include four phases and won’t have a timeline, officials said Thursday. Comments will be reviewed during a future open house; decisions about specifics on each phase of growth have not been determined.

The first phase would minimize new development at the airport. Current facilities will be fitted to meet current Federal Aviation Administration design standards and handle tenant demand. Simply put, make upgrades to Ted Stevens but no big changes.

The second phase, if airport demands grow, would optimize the Anchorage airport’s existing runways and consolidate its terminals. The consolidation includes the construction of a new passenger concourse in the airport’s south terminal, which will provide five additional boarding gates. It would also make better use of runway 7-L, a west-east runway. Master Plan Update project manager Evan Pfahler said increased activity on that runway would result in more noise. A noise analysis is underway, he said.

If more cargo and passengers fly to and from Anchorage, a third phase that includes upgrades to Anchorage's Ted Stevens and Fairbanks International Airport kicks in. Part of this phase calls for shifting some cargo from Alaska’s largest city to the Interior city of Fairbanks.

Pfahler said the third phase requires working with airlines operating in the state to enhance Fairbanks’ operations to handle the increase in traffic. “If (the Anchorage-Fairbanks) partnership is successful, it could work for a very long time. If it doesn’t, if airlines are resistant, we’d go forward with phase four.”

The fourth and final phase calls for new runway. “Expand (Anchorage International) with a new, widely-spaced runway that meets the highest level of forecast demand.” The final phase, which could be as far out as a decade, just in time for another master plan update, raises concerns among opponents of runway expansion.

Anchorage’s airport is overdue for a rewrite of its development plan. The FAA encourages commercial service airports in the U.S. to update their plans every five to seven years. It’s been 11 years since Anchorage's Ted Stevens International Airport updated its master plan.

Cargo passing through the airport has fallen about 25 percent since 2007, with the decline continuing into 2013, said airport manager John Parrott in a previous interview. The decline may end, and overall growth is pegged around 1.4 percent annually, according to the airport.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com or via Twitter at twitter.com/jerzyms.