TUPELO – Airport officials tried, but likely didn’t succeed, to convince residents and city leaders that West Jackson Street Extended needs rerouting and not tunneling.
Tupelo Regional Airport board members and representatives of two engineering firms touted their plan for the road and a proposed runway extension at a public meeting Thursday at City Hall.
Several dozen residents, the mayor and City Council members attended the two-hour session, which was organized as an informal open house. Participants could choose to visit four different stations, each explaining a key aspect of the overall project.
That project is a $9.3 million runway extension that will put Jackson Extended even further inside the runway protection zone, which is a restricted area surrounding the runway. If the project gets final approval, the road must either move or burrow underground.
Residents – especially those living in west Tupelo – want the tunnel so their main access route to and from downtown can stay open. City officials, including the mayor, also have said they favor this plan.
But airport officials and engineers say it’s not feasible.
“If the tunnel becomes an option, it’s got to be modeled, and the preliminary indications are that it won’t pass,” said Kenneth Gilbert, an engineer with Neel Schaffer.
Modeling is when aviation experts use computer-generated flight simulators to test potential runway conditions.
“Plus,” Gilbert said, “the cost of a tunnel is almost the same as the runway.”
It’d cost an estimated $8.2 million to dig an 1,100-foot tunnel under the existing roadway at a depth of 25 feet. That’s versus the $2.5 million projected to reroute West Jackson Street Extended north to Colonial Estates Road, as well as make numerous road improvements along the new route.
The Federal Aviation Administration already prefers the road relocation plan, as indicated in a February memo, and it could approve the entire runway-road project by early January if local officials choose that option.
On the other hand, picking a tunnel would require a cost-benefit analysis, an environmental impact statement and negotiations with the Chickasaw Nation because of potential archeological sites, Gilbert said. It could delay FAA approval by three to five years.
“We’d be in jeopardy of losing the whole project if we postponed it due to the road,” said Dan Kellum, chair of the Tupelo Airport Authority. “That’s the sticking point.”
The city also would jeopardize the federal funding committed to the project, which would cover 95 percent of the total cost.
The dilemma concerns city leaders, like Councilman Jim Newell of Ward 3, who listened attentively to the explanations. But he remains unconvinced that rerouting West Jackson Extended is necessary.
Newell further said he’s not sure a runway extension is necessary and thinks the whole issue merits further study.
“We don’t need to make a rush to judgment just because the money is there,” Newell said.
West Tupelo resident Michael Rodgers also opposes a runway extension, saying the airport doesn’t do enough business to warrant it. And without a real need, he said, it’s senseless to close a major east-west artery and forever change that part of town.
Airport officials argue the need does exist – not just to accommodate more airplanes or bigger ones, but to better serve the ones already flying in and out of the air field.
The shorter the runway, the less weight an airplane can carry at takeoff. Add some heat – like the weather on a Mississippi summer afternoon – and the plane needs an even longer runway to carry its load.
It’s not rare to see airplanes drop passengers and fuel to lift out of Tupelo, Gilbert said, which helped convince the FAA that a runway extension here already is necessary.
Melissa Conwill said she understands that. The west Tupelo resident favors a runway extension and the general growth of the airport. But she opposes the rerouting of Jackson Extended, which she travels four times daily between work and home.
Her sentiments echoed those of other residents in attendance Thursday. Most of them voiced their opinions on blue forms near the door. Their comments will go to the FAA, which will take them into account before issuing a final opinion.
But city officials also need to comment, and Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said he wants to meet with airport representatives first before making a final call.
“Tonight was for me to listen,” Reed said. “Next, the council and I are going to get together, and then we’ll get together with the airport.”
No word yet on when these meetings will occur.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal