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As the City of Seward geared up for an eleventh-hour battle to persuade the Alaska Department of Transportation not to abandon the long runway at the Seward airport, the city and airport partisans got an unexpected reprieve from none other than the Federal Aviation Administration, whose involvement is the key to federal grant funds essential to repairs at the airport.

In a letter to Acting City Manager Norm Regis last Thursday, FAA said it had erroneously denied a request by former interim city manager Jeff Bridges to convene a public hearing on the subject. A hearing will instead go forward when the city and DOT&PF find an acceptable time. City officials tell the Journal they will press to have the hearing held here in Seward.

“Whether or not that will change anything, I can’t say for sure,” said Project Manager Barbara Beaton of holding a hearing. “We’ve done a tremendous amount of homework for the project, and that’s all on our website. We pretty much dotted all our Is and crossed all our Ts and feel that we’re on the right path for ourselves and the community.”

The hearing provides a last-minute opportunity to lobby DOT&PF, but comes after the department has already settled on a project plan and furnished a draft environmental assessment that assumes the abandonment of the long runway, the 4,500-foot Runway 13/31, which has faced repeated flooding from Resurrection River. Evidence of water damage prompted the department to downgrade the runway’s weight capacity in 2014.

In the works since around the same time, the Seward Airport Improvement Project originally contemplated two potential actions called Alternative 1.1 and Alternative 2.2, which differed in how they proposed to address the flooding challenge. (Another early option, Alternative 3, was eliminated early on.)

DOT&PF dropped Alternative 1.1, which called for raising and armoring Runway 13/31, on a number of hydrological and regulatory grounds. DOT&PF especially opposed proposals that called for excavating channels in the Resurrection River in order to return it to a historical course further to the east, according to multiple accounts from people who attended those early meetings.

Alternative 1.1. would also increase the base flood elevation by four feet on around 125 acres of nearby land, according to models described in DOT&PF documents. Many of the affected lots are presently undevelopable parcels without access or utilities and lie practically inside the river delta. 

The department has instead moved forward with Alternative 2.2, which includes extending the shorter landing strip, Runway 16/34, to 3,300 feet and leaving Runway 13/31 to the unsubtle mercies of the river. The department concluded, on the basis of historical airport use data, that a 3,300 foot runway would accommodate present and anticipated future traffic at the airport, a finding that local airport proponents have also contested.

The airport’s future has become a focus of attention for the city’s Port and Commerce Advisory Board. Board Member Bruce Jaffa has criticized DOT&PF’s evaluation of traffic at the airport, saying that the low traffic estimates are a self-fulfilling prophecy that would cramp growth.

“Accepting Alternative 2.2 really puts us on the same level as a minor city of little consequence,” Jaffa said. “Going to [Alternative] 1.1. is looking toward a future that may not be fully defined in the data.”

PACAB members are generally adamant that Seward needs a runway of at least 4,000 feet to accommodate emergency operations in the event that the Seward Highway is blocked.

“I don’t understand how DOT doesn’t get the unique topography of Seward,” said PACAB Member Carl Hughes. “At any time, Seward can be completely cut off.”

Seward resident Darryl Schaefermeyer told PACAB that the long runway saved the life of one of his children.

“The airport is vital. My oldest son would not be alive today if it were not for the longer runway,” Schaefermeyer said. “He was medevacked by Learjet off the long runway and arrived at the Anchorage [Pediatric Intensive Care Unit] – five minutes later and the doctors said he would have expired. This is life and death.”

The project has also drawn the concern of Seward’s top executive officials. In 2017, then-assistant city manager Ron Long sent a letter arguing in favor of Alternative 1.1, despite DOT&PF’s concerns about excavating channels in the Resurrection River.

“Redirecting the river as an element of protecting the runway should not be taken off the table,” Long wrote. “Watercourses migrate within the floodplain boundaries, and at some point this river will be somewhere other than where it is now. Formulating a protection strategy … on an assumption that the floodway watercourse will remain in one place … will likely impede the river from migrating further west but will be of no use if the river migrates to the east.”

Reached Monday afternoon, Long said he stands by the message of his 2017 letter and feels Alternative 1.1 better serves the community’s interests.

In January of this year, a week before the public comment period on the draft environmental assessment closed, then-interim city manager Jeff Bridges sent another letter requesting a public hearing and asking that DOT&PF at least extend Runway 16/34 to 4,000 feet. The city is now backing away from that in favor of promoting Alternative 1.1.

Although the letter reached FAA a week before the public comment period closed, the agency denied the request, an action which it now says it made in error.

“During my review of the request, I misinterpreted whether the City’s request for the hearing had been submitted within or outside the public comment period,” reads the letter from FAA Environmental Protection Specialist Keith Gordon.