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Taking Flight title
Climate Change Provides Steady Stream of Airport Repair Needs
By David A. James
Concrete hardstands, which prevent settling caused by the weight of large aircraft, were installed by QAP at Ralph Wien Memorial Airport in Kotzebue.

Photo courtesy of Matt Schram, project superintendent for QAP

Concrete hardstands, which prevent settling caused by the weight of large aircraft, were installed by QAP at Ralph Wien Memorial Airport in Kotzebue.

Photo courtesy of Matt Schram, project superintendent for QAP

Taking Flight title
Climate Change Provides Steady Stream of Airport Repair Needs
By David A. James

nyone who has driven more than a handful of miles in Alaska knows pavement does not do well in the North. Despite nonstop efforts from the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, or DOT&PF, to keep highways in working order, frost heaves, erosion, subsidence, and other natural subsurface occurrences are perpetually turning the state’s highways into obstacle courses. Drivers here are well acquainted with the temporary loss of vehicular control that occurs when they suddenly hit an unexpected bulge or pothole. It can be dangerous if they’re moving quickly, especially if the road is icy.

Now imagine what pilots experience when they land a plane at an airport plagued by the same conditions.

“The larger regional-hub certified airport runways serve high-performance jet aircraft,” says Roger Maggard, statewide airport development manager with the DOT&PF. “So, they’re sensitive to minor variations in the runway surface that wouldn’t necessarily cause problems to somebody landing in a Cessna 206—but for these large high-performance aircraft going fast, it does cause problems.”

Similar to the state’s highways, Maggard says, runways present transportation officials with a perennial struggle to stay ahead of “ice-rich soils that are melting.”

Maggard oversees the Airport Improvement Program, or AIP, which ranks and prioritizes needed upgrades at airports across a state where many communities are inaccessible by road and thus reliant on aviation to maintain their connection to the rest of the world. “What we want to achieve is to keep our airports in good, safe, operational condition,” he says.

Sorting Through the Needs
As part of his job, Maggard sits on the Aviation Project Evaluation Board, which determines the most pressing airport improvement needs across the state and allocates funds to address them. Maggard says the process begins with regional planners, who identify improvement needs and submit their highest priorities to the board. The board itself is comprised of several state and regional aviation officials who evaluate these requests using a set of sixteen criteria points.

After all the proposals have been examined and scored, the board ranks them to determine which projects to undertake in coming months, based on priority and budget availability. Then they put the projects out to bid. Maggard says once the low bid is selected, the grant application is prepared for the FAA. Final approval for a project comes from the office of the Secretary of Transportation.

Maggard points to the airports at Nome, Kotzebue, Utqiagvik, and Bethel as examples of important regional hubs that are beset by subsurface problems.

“There’s a lot of permafrost in the area, and it’s impacting all infrastructure. Especially when you put pavement on it,” he explains. “Pavement’s a dark color and it absorbs radiation and tends to increase the likelihood of transmitting that heat deeper into the ground, accelerating the ice melting in permafrost areas.”

DOT airport contracts are currently funding more than $100 million in repairs and upgrades, ranging from routine runway rehabilitation in Nightmute to the airport in Newtok which, like the town itself, is being moved to drier ground. The latter, Maggard says, is “a project that illustrates the impacts of climate warming.”

Aerial view of Mertarvik Airport under construction
An aerial view of Mertarvik Airport, which Cruz Construction is building and is scheduled to be completed in 2022. Residents of Newtok, which is being lost to erosion, are in the process of relocating to the new village of Mertarvik, located on drier ground nine miles from Newtok.

Photo courtesy of Roger Maggard, Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities

Foamed Asphalt Provides Flexible Stability
Last summer, one such project was completed in Kotzebue, where Anchorage contractor QAP rehabilitated the airport’s apron pavement.

“We milled the entire apron, regraded it, and then we used a process that was new to this area. The first time they’ve used it in the northwest region,” says Matt Schram, a project superintendent for QAP.

The process is called foamed asphalt base stabilization. “We actually ground the sub-base up and injected foamed asphalt and cement. It’s kind of a way to stabilize the base. And then we paved on top of that. That was pretty much the project in a nutshell.”

Schram says foamed asphalt is a technique employed to absorb ground movement from thawing permafrost. “You have a grinding machine that’s hooked to a water tanker and also a hot oil tanker. When you actually inject the asphalt into the aggregate, the oil is at 350º Fahrenheit. Once that hot oil hits the water, they call it foaming. It expands. And that process, once it sets up, makes a very durable, yet flexible, base course to pave on.”

This process recycles existing materials into new roads, runways, and other paved surfaces. But additional aggregate is still needed, Schram says. “There’s no aggregate source in Kotzebue. So, we brought up all our aggregate for asphalt D-1 from Nome.”

This points to the logistical challenges facing any contractor bidding on a remote airport job in Alaska. Getting equipment and supplies to work sites is a major endeavor in itself. Most airports are near rivers or the coast and can be reached by barge during summer months. This is what QAP did in the summer of 2020 in preparation for last summer’s work, Schram says. “We barged all that in and staged it last summer into fall. But as far as work on the project, it was a one-year project.”

Maggard says while most airports can be accessed via nearby waterways, a few can’t.

“In cases where it’s not located by a river, it gets a lot more complicated,” he says. “In extreme cases, you might have to take it overland—or you might even have to fly.”

Flying gravel to a construction site is extremely expensive. Fortunately, he said, these cases are the exception.

Nanwalek-Port Graham Airport Relocation Drilling Services Rebid
Perform drilling between Port Graham and Nanwalek beginning approximately May 2022. This project site is the location for a proposed new airport and access roads to both Port Graham and Nanwalek.
Engineer’s estimate: between $1 million and $2.5 million. Award pending.
Kwethluk Airport Rehabilitation Design Services
Provide design to rehabilitate and resurface runway 18/36, the taxiway, safety areas, apron, and access road.
Awarded to GeoTek Alaska Inc. at $1,498,742.
Kipnuk Airport Rehabilitation
Resurface the main gravel runway, taxiway, and apron at the Kipnuk Airport. The runway will be widened and the RSA will be expanded. Improvements also include airport lighting, visual navigational aids, dust palliative, signage, and aircraft tie-downs.
Awarded to Knik Construction Co. Inc. at $14,085,572.
Ekwok Airport & New Stuyahok Airport Resurfacing
Rehabilitation of two airports located northeast of Dillingham along the Nushagak River.
Engineer’s estimate: between $20 million and $30 million. Award pending.
Bethel Airport Main Runway Reconstruction
Reconstruct Runway 1L-19R, along with Taxiways A, C, D, and G. The work also includes resurfacing Taxiway B and improvements to airfield lighting.
Awarded to Knik Construction Co. Inc. at $33,822,092.
Takotna Airport Rehabilitation Drilling Services
Rehabilitate the runway, taxiway, apron, and access road.
Awarded to GeoTek Alaska Inc. at $167,400.
Scammon Bay Airport Improvements Drilling Services
Rehabilitate the main runway and other airport elements to enhance safety and improve infrastructure.
Bids rejected. Going to rebid.
Nightmute Airport Improvements Drilling Services
Rehabilitate the runway, taxiway, apron, and airport access road.
Awarded to Denali Drilling Inc. at $165,850.
Togiak Airport Resurfacing and Lighting Replacement
Resurface the main gravel runway, taxiway, apron, and access road.
Awarded to Brice, Inc. at $6,487,530.
Cold Bay Airport Snow Removal Equipment and Chemical Storage Building
Demolish, remove, and dispose of the existing facilities and construct a new snow removal and chemical storage building.
Awarded to Olgoonik Construction Services at $6,683,000.
Newtok Airport Relocation
Construct a new airport (gravel runway, taxiway, apron) and access road, haul road, 2 SREBs, and drainage as well as install new airport lighting, electrical utilities, and visual navigational aids, along with develop a material and disposal site.
Awarded to Cruz Construction, Inc. at $22,686,977.
Shageluk Airport Access Road Improvements
Reconstruct approximately 2.7 miles of the Shageluk Airport Access Road. Project includes roadside hardware, drainage improvements, and utilities.
Awarded to Cruz Construction, Inc. at $5,556,860.
Bettles Airport Lighting and Resurfacing
Resurface the runway, apron, and taxiway. Replace the airport lighting, apply dust palliative, and remove airspace obstructions.
Awarded to ASRC Civil Construction at $5,339,125.
Noorvik Airport Rehabilitation
Rehabilitate the runway, taxiway, apron, and airport lighting. Stabilize slopes, rehabilitate shoulders, and apply a dust palliative.
Awarded to Kikiktagruk Inupiat
Corporation Construction/Drake Construction Joint Venture at $11,374,249.
Kaltag Airport Improvements
Resurface the runway, taxiway, apron, and access road and apply dust palliative to operational surfaces.
Awarded to Brice, Inc. at $10,686,279.
Deadhorse Airport Patch Work
Awarded to QAP at $206,816.
Stebbins Airport Segmented Circle Replacement
Replace the segmented circle and primary windsock tower at the Stebbins Airport.
Awarded to Jolt Construction and Traffic Maintenance, Inc. at $119,000.
Kodiak Municipal Airport Perimeter Fencing and Gate Upgrades
Project will replace/upgrade access controls and gates to meet federal transportation requirements and replace existing fencing when needed.
Award pending.
Village of Newtok
The village of Newtok and its airport are being lost to erosion. The community is in the process of moving to the new village of Mertarvik, located nine miles away on drier ground.

Photo courtesy of Roger Maggard, Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities

Pandemic Precautions and Logistics Pose Problems
Jolt Construction didn’t have to fly gravel to Stebbins for the relatively small job of replacing the segmented circle and primary windsock tower in the community’s small facility this past summer. But they still had transportation challenges, says Jordan Cole, a project manager with the company.

“We had to ship materials via barge out of Anchorage to Stebbins, and obviously had to fly some guys and material into the airport as well,” he says. “Just getting from the barge landing to the airport can be challenging. You don’t have the resources or equipment in place like you do in a road-accessed area.”

While on site, Jolt’s crew had the additional concern of maintaining safe pandemic practices in order to protect the community.

“You’re trying to limit interactions” with local residents, Cole says. But “at the same time you’re in a new place that you don’t know anything about. So, you do need local help and support, and that makes it challenging.”

Cole said the Stebbins job went smoothly and credited a skilled and experienced workforce with allowing the company to be done with the onsite work in a matter of days.

“If we had never done a project like this before, it wouldn’t be as efficient,” he says. “We’d be a lot slower.”

The contract in Stebbins came in at under $120,000, which makes it one of the smallest DOT airport upgrades of 2021. Most cost much more—some jobs at Alaska’s remote airports, such as upgrades at Nome and Ekwok, are budgeted at $25 million or more. Almost all of the funding comes from the federal Airport Improvement Program, under the Federal Aviation Administration. According to the DOT&PF’s Maggard, the federal government pays nearly 94 percent of the costs, with the state picking up the rest.

“The match ratio is so favorable that the Legislature has been willing to provide the match for all the projects that we can get federal funding for,” Maggard says.

Projects Big and Small Abound
The nature of needed work ranges widely. Maggard says most jobs are fairly straightforward. Keeping runways and tarmac in working order through resurfacing is a top priority, as is replacing unreliable lighting systems. Projects to install electrical utilities and navigational aids, improve drainage, control erosion, apply dust palliatives, and even simple tasks like replacing fencing or building access roads gets contracted out.

Maggard says many of the problems at remote airports that require attention result from permafrost degradation. As air temperatures across Alaska slowly increase, soils are warmed and permafrost thaws, wreaking havoc on infrastructure.

“Every airport that’s built in the northern part of the state is seeing that problem,” he says.

Infrastructure Bill Means More Work
The recently passed federal infrastructure bill, which all three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation supported, will result in a lot more airport work being completed around the state in coming years. Nationally, $15 billion is allocated for planning, installing, and expanding runways, gates, and taxiways and improving runway lighting and navigation. Another $10 billion is earmarked for FAA-owned air traffic control facilities and contract towers and for improvements to small hub, non-hub, and non-primary airports. From Anchorage to some of the smallest communities across the state, the money creates opportunities for Alaska’s large-scale contractors.

Maggard says Alaska’s airport woes are an unending battle. “As soon as you get one spot fixed, next year something else subsides. Most airports, especially paved airports built in the northern part of the state, are seeing that problem.”

With climate change speeding the process a bit more each year, he doesn’t anticipate the situation getting better. “It’s a definite problem,” he says. One “that’s probably not going to do anything but get worse as temperatures rise.”

David A. James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks.