Street closure unlikely under Tupelo runway options

TUPELO – An extension of the runway at Tupelo Regional Airport is still being considered, but closing West Jackson Street Extended to accommodate it appears to be off the table.
City leaders, airport officials, engineers and the manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s district office met Monday to talk about the extension project, which has been in the works for more than four years.
The Tupelo Airport Authority has sought to extend the runway from 6,500 feet to 8,000 feet, but has approval from the FAA to extend it to only 7,500 feet.
But the plan ran into stiff opposition when airport officials said West Jackson Street Extended would have to be rerouted.
The road connects to West Jackson Street, which is viewed by many residents, businesses and some city leaders as a major east-west thoroughfare, connecting Coley Road to the eastern portions of the city.
The airport’s former executive director, Terry Anderson, had said any extension of the runway would mean having to reroute traffic off West Jackson Extended.
He had pushed a plan to move and expand Colonial Estate Road to accommodate the traffic that would be rerouted onto McCullough Boulevard.
But at Monday’s two-hour meeting, that idea was pushed aside in favor of two other options:
* Extending the runway to 8,000 feet and finding an east-west corridor connecting Coley Road to West Jackson. This option could also include a tunnel.
* Extending the runway on the south end and north end without having to close or reroute West Jackson Extended. One suggestion was to add 100 feet to the south and 500 feet to the north to extend the runway to 7,100 feet. The extension could be longer or shorter, depending on what the study concludes.
Tupelo Airport Authority Chairman said the board would have to authorize engineering firm Neel-Schaffer to look into the two options.
The board could take up the matter at its regularly scheduled meeting tonight, he said.
Funding for the additional studies would be paid for through Airport Improvement Plan grants available through the FAA.
Problems with the plans
Allen Thames Jr, senior aviation planner for Neel-Schaffer, said the problem with the first option is that it could take “several years” to conduct a study and receive all the necessary approvals to get the project started.
“And I also have to point out that the FAA has only approved extension of the runway to 7,500 feet and not 8,000 feet,” he said.
A tunnel for West Jackson Extended hasn’t been ruled out in this option, but the cost of a 1,100-foot tunnel would be “expensive” and could involve a time-consuming benefit-cost analysis.
Moving West Jackson Extended farther north into the Buffalo Park to keep the road connected to Coley is one way to avoid a costly tunnel. But negotiations with the Chickasaw Nation would have to take place if any work is to be done on the land in the area.
The second option – looking at extending the runway on both the north and south ends – picked up a lot of support.
“How much can we add to the runway without having to affect West Jackson Extended and disrupting traffic?” asked airport board member Glenn McCullough Jr. “That’s what we’d like to know.”
Thames said it could take two or three months to study the option. After getting the information to the FAA, it could be “six or seven months” before Neel-Shaffer could return with a definitive answer on the exact length of the runway that could be built and how much it would cost.
But Black said there could be a potential problem with extending the runway to the south.
“You’re looking at moving $2 million worth of FAA equipment, plus looking at buying property,” he said.
That property includes a city fire station and a BancorpSouth branch.
Some city councilmen also said that if the airport is going to extend the runway, it might as well go ahead and build the additional length to 8,000 feet.
But the FAA’s Rans Black said it’s not that easy. Approval of any extension requires justification for the project, and that Tupelo did not have the numbers to support an extension of more than 7,500 feet.
Funding for the project shouldn’t be a big concern, Black said.
“We want to support you anytime we can,” he said. “We plan on funding years in advance and we’ve been planning for this for four years. It’s not like you’ll be losing out if this is delayed. The key is hearing from the community about what you want.”
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said the state’s congressional delegation has assured him that they would support the airport’s efforts. Reed said that he, too, was not concerned about funding the extension project.
“I don’t think time is of the essence,” he said. “We don’t have airlines asking for us to extend the runway. But I don’t think this is the last chance that we’ll have to talk about expanding Tupelo Regional either. We might have a shorter extension now, and in the future, the demand might require an additional expansion. I don’t think this is an all-or-nothing deal.”
Contact Business Editor Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1576 or dennis.seid@djournal.com.

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal