New Oak Ridge airport could break ground in 2020
Plans for the long-awaited Oak Ridge airport have continued to progress in recent months, and leaders of the project are gaining confidence that the town could have a general aviation airport in the next two years if plans fall into place as hoped.
The city has had several iterations of airport plans over the years, but Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said this time is different.
“This one has legs and if we’re going to get one, it’s the one that will make it work,” he said last week.
As it currently stands, plans call for a 5,000-foot runway, a partial parallel taxiway and about 40 hangars on 171 acres that was acquired from the Department of Energy. It is part of the former K-25 uranium enrichment facility site, which the Department of Energy has been working for more than a decade to reclaim for industrial use and is now known as the East Tennessee Technology Park.
The total cost of the project is estimated to run from $47-55 million.
Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority, which oversees McGhee Tyson Airport and Downtown Island Airport, is managing the project.
Population growth necessitated the airport
The airport authority has been spearheading the project since 2009 as a way to serve the business, technology and government contract markets in Oak Ridge.
As it stands, Watson said, Oak Ridge is the largest city in the state without a general aviation airport.
Project consultant Billy Stair said the increase in the region’s population, combined with increased business travel from places like Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Coqui Pharmaceuticals Corp. — who will rely on it for their business of transporting medical isotopes and could fly 400-500 times a year — make an airport necessary.
A new airport also will cut down on Knoxville’s busy Downtown Island Airport, which has over 100 pilots on a waiting list wanting to store planes there.
“All of that is to say there is an increased demand on air capacity in the Knoxville region and one of the factors of the decision is that Downtown Island, by virtue of being an island, has severe constraints on the ability to expand,” Stair said.
Steps left to take, plus financing
Last fall, project leaders from the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority submitted the project’s master plan to the Federal Aviation Administration regional office in Atlanta and FFA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Now, they wait.
Stair said it could be six months to a year before they hear back from the FAA. Once they do, Stair said, it’s likely they will be asked to perform an extensive environmental assessment, which should be fine, he said, because the DOE performed one before they agreed to transfer the land for the airport.
MKAA President Patrick Wilson said the group would like to continue finding funds for the project, but in actuality, they have raised enough for a federal match already.
Normal airport applications necessitate a 90-10 percent federal/local government match, but Stair said MKAA has raised through grants and other means to cover nearly 30-40 percent of the funds needed and could raise as much as 60-70 percent of the funds needed.
“The ability to get a match that is 6070 percent instead of 10 percent we think will be a strong incentive for Congress and the FAA to provide the remaining portion … I’ve never come across (a project) where the local match was this high,” he said.
The city of Oak Ridge has not given money to the project, and there’s no plan for them to, Stair said. The city will be responsible for obtaining correct zoning for the airport.
If the studies come back in a reasonable time and funding is secured, and then the FAA and Congress approve the airport, the group could break ground on the site by the end of 2020. But, Stair said, it’s just as likely to be sometime in 2021.
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Tyler Whetstone
The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org
Published January 16, 2019