CHO work confounds, excites dredge fans
There were several surprises surrounding a runway announcement from the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport July 21.
For starters, the price for the first phase of a runway expansion came in at less than half the engineer's estimate. And as word circulated that CHO wants to move forward, the idea–- dismissed in March by the City Manager–- that the airport might eventually help prevent the community from embarking on a pricey and environmentally questionable reservoir/pipeline plan confounded and excited some fans of dredging.
"All the time they were telling us they might not go forward with a runway extension, they were putting together documents and doing it," says former Charlottesville vice-mayor Kevin Lynch. Citing a letter he received in response to a Freedom of Information request, Lynch says the City claimed in early May that it had received nothing written from engineers.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
"I want to reiterate," wrote Assistant City Attorney Francesca Fornari on May 5, "that engineering design has not taken place."
And yet, somehow, on May 27, the Airport filed a 72-page site plan with the County, and on June 8 released a 408-page bid packet.
"Clearly, the public's been misled on this," says Lynch. "It's hard to believe that all this could be done in the space of a month."
But Airport director Barbara Hutchinson, insisting that she really didn't have the engineering documents in her possession, downplays the complexity of the upcoming project.
She calls this work the "preparatory phase" of a "simple project" and points out that it includes only two construction elements: moving a gravel road (or portion thereof depending on funding) and digging rain-detention basins.
That's not particularly comforting to Lynch, who's part of a group–- Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan (CSWP)–- that's urging dredging over reservoir-building. "It's almost," says Lynch, "like the people running the airport have no idea what's going on."
But to Joe Mooney, one of his CSWP colleagues, the airport news may eventually produce an outcome that saves tens of millions.
"To me," says Mooney, "it reopens the door that [City Manager] Gary O'Connell had really slammed shut, so that the public can consider the benefits of pairing the reservoir dredging with the runway extension."
Such considerations may take a backseat to the airport director's desire to lengthen the main runway by about 800 feet. That extension would insure that the regional jets that are its bread and butter– and that now sometime leave seats unsold because of runway-based weight restrictions– would have enough runway to sell every seat. And she's particularly glad about the way the bidding turned out. Her lead engineer had estimated $8 million, but the low bid was less than half that: $3.9 million.
"We're excited because it's so far below the estimate," says Hutchinson. "But it's sad in a way because it's indicative of the state of the economy."
Hutchinson notes that there were 10 bidders. "I can't remember," she says, "the last time we had more than three or four."
Hutchinson says she pushed the bidding toward a July 16 deadline to have the project package ready to meet the state's August deadline for funding. Still, she has no guarantee of getting the money, and she also needs approval from her board to award the contract to low-bidder Faulconer Construction.
"We have no idea whether it will receive full, partial, or no funding," says Hutchinson. "We don't know which other airports have applied."
The FAA has informed Hutchinson that it might take two years to approve any more discretionary funding for what is currently seen as a $50 million project.
This initial work is so small, says Hutchinson, that it's not even Phase I; it's dubbed Phase 1A. And although the bid documents mention up to 465,000 cubic yards of embankment, Hutchinson says none of this phase's embankment– i.e. dirt– is coming from off-site.
That's quite a contrast to the last major airport expansion. A contract awarded in 2003 put thousands of dirt-filled trucks on area roads when the Airport secured 476,665 cubic yards of fill from Luck Stone quarries in Shadwell and Ruckersville.
As previously reported, Airport financial records examined by the Hook showed that $4.55 million of the total $6.8 million safety zone project–- 67 percent of the budget–- was spent to purchase and haul the dirt, though a quarter of the cost went to excavate earth on-site.
Such spending on something that might be cheaply available just two miles away on the bottom of the Rivanna Reservoir has water activists like Mooney excited about the latest development.
"It keeps alive the idea of using fill for the rest of it," says Mooney. "Environmentally, it's a win-win situation."
Mooney is the Charlottesville citizen who discovered that federal officials in Philadelphia won one of the highest government accolades–- the Al Gore-created "Hammer Award"–- for using dredged spoils for the Philly airport's new runaway. With that project, the government won on two fronts: lower disposal cost from a channel-clearing operation and less expense to support the new runway.
The Charlottesville area, however, may not get such a chance. O'Connell, who sits on both the airport board and the water board, downplays the idea of repeating such efforts. "I think it's important not to mix the two together," he told City Council Monday, March 3.
Shortly thereafter, a Hook Freedom of Information request found a curious communication about a member of the airport's citizen advisory board. Gregory Edwards, who works at the Nature Conservancy–- the private eco-group steadfastly pressing the reservoir/pipeline plan as part of a national model to showcase restoration of natural stream flows–- paid a personal visit to the Airport director in late February after the dredging activists began gaining traction.
In an email, Hutchinson noted that Edwards claimed it was "not appropriate" to include the Airport in any dredging discussion. Edwards later clarified that it was simply too early to plan for dirt-sharing and that he never really meant to dampen such considerations.
This week, he said it's up to others to decide the source of the dirt. "Whoever gets the bid," says Edwards, "decides where they get the fill that meets FAA standards."
On August 12, a new task force will convene to determine how to maintain the Rivanna Reservoir. Unfortunately for folks like Mooney–- who'd like to see dredging derail the planned pipeline-dependent, Interstate Highway-hugging reservoir–- that task force appears stacked with dredging opponents, including its chair, Albemarle Supervisor Sally Thomas. Although Thomas claims she doesn't oppose dredging, she–- like all 11 top elected officials in Charlottesville and Albemarle–- has thrown her support behind the official reservoir plan, while budgeting nothing to save the existing water source.
Ironically, all this comes after a May 6 presentation to City Council by nationally renowned dredging consulting firm Gahagan & Bryant that put the cost of dredging the Reservoir at under $30 million. A few days later, a local firm named DDR unveiled its plan for performing the whole operation–- including sediment disposal–- for as little as $24 million.
O'Connell was on vacation when word spread of the Airport's big news. But Mooney, for one, is eager to see whether the City manager–- who has recently come under fire for multi-million-dollar City Council edicts to re-brick the Downtown Mall and revamp McIntire Park and oust its softball players–- might reconsider his opposition to dredging on fiscal, if not environmental, grounds.
"He's the key person, really," says Mooney, "because he sits on both boards."
–updated 4:38pm, August 12