ST. GEORGE — There was a long, winding line in the observation room of the St. George Regional Airport terminal Wednesday afternoon as several people waited to take a bus tour of the airport’s rebuilt runway.
During the airport’s four-month long closure, the runway was torn up and reconstructed with a goal of avoiding the problems that made the reconstruction necessary in the first place.
“It’s great to have this project complete,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said at the airport open house Wednesday. He was there along with other civic and airport officials to greet the public and share in the collective satisfaction of seeing the resolution of an issue that has plagued the airport’s runway for eight years.
The St. George Regional Airport was built on what Pike referred to as “virgin soil” that no one had built on before. It was known there was blue clay in the area, but it wasn’t known “just how bad and how aggressive” it was until after the runway was built.
Over time, moisture from rain storms seeped into the ground beneath the runway and caused the clay and other material beneath it to expand. This eventually caused the runway to become uneven and cracked.
The runway was patched up here and there, but it was ultimately determined by city and federal officials that it needed to be torn up and rebuilt with a better foundation and drainage system.
St. George-based JP Excavation was contracted to excavate and rebuild 5,400 feet of the runway. Crews dug down 17 feet in a trench a few hundred feet wide to remove the blue clay and other expansive materials. Then they began to fill the trench with new material and a moisture-resistant membrane.
“We hope this is a very long term answer – that certainly is the opinion of the (Federal Aviation Administration) as well as all of the engineers,” Pike said.
The runway was redesigned with oversight from the FAA, the city of St. George and geotechnical engineers specializing in runway construction.
Engineers checked, double checked and tripled checked their work, Pike said, in order to make sure they had found the best solutions for addressing and mitigating the soils issue.
“It wasn’t just one solution but four built into this project to make sure the fix sticks,” he said.
Airport Manager Richard Stehmeier, who helped guide people to the waiting bus that would take them to the runway, said he couldn’t wait for Thursday morning when the airport returned to regular operation.
“I can’t wait for tomorrow when all the flights come back. I’ve been waiting for this day for four months,” he said.
Stehmeier praised everyone involved in getting the airport prepared to open on time.
“We had incredible engineers and contractors that have stepped up and did things no one thought we could do, and we completed it,” he said. “And we actually opened up two days early.”
Noting the large crowds that came to the open house at the airport, Stehmeier said 600-700 people had faithfully followed the work on the airport’s runway over Facebook.
“We’re seeing a lot of people come out and support us, which is awesome,” he said.
As for what Stehmeier said he’s learned from the past four months, it’s that “blue clay is ugly” and that some plans – like the original runway – just don’t work out sometimes.
“That’s the way it is, so you pick up the pieces and you go forward and you fix and you get it done,” he said.
Stehmeier said the runway should be good for years to come.
Both Stehmeier and Pike said they were excited for what was coming next for the airport – a new flight to Dallas-Fort Worth through American Airlines. The new route was announced prior to the airport’s closure. The first flight from St. George to Dallas-Fort Worth is scheduled to fly out of the airport at 7:05 a.m. Thursday.
“We have this new thing which is the flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, actually our fifth destination, which is incredible,” Stehmeier said. “We’re working on more (destinations). We just want the airport to grow, and now that we have an awesome airport that should grow over the next 20, 30, 40 years, we’re in a good place to do that.”
The St. George Regional Airport also has flights to Salt Lake City through Delta Airlines, Phoenix through American Airlines and Los Angeles and Denver through United Airlines through connections made with St. George-based SkyWest Airlines.
“It’s a recipe for success for economic development for tourism as well as for business,” Pike said. “We’re thrilled to be able to have those major hubs all going from St. George. So really, it’s kind of one hop to anywhere from here.”
There has been some discussion about new flights to California’s Bay Area and a destination in the Midwest, Pike said, but nothing official has been pursued and is likely a year or more down the road.
Civic and airport officials aren’t the only ones excited to see the airport return to operation.
Salt Lake City residents Alex Clark and Nancy Cozzens, who regularly fly to St. George, said they were happy the airport was reopening.
“We’re excited for the airport to open again,” Clark said. “We’re frequent travelers down here, and we use the airport a lot.”
Both women took the bus tour of the new runway and said it was “awesome.”
“We’re excited for the future of the airport with this new development,” Cozzens said.
Lasting roughly 10 minutes, the bus tour took 22 people at a time and was hosted by Brad Kitchen, the airport’s operations supervisor.
Kitchen made note of improvements made to the airport facility overall in addition to the new runway. Among those improvements are an expanded parking lot and additional space for planes to approach the airport terminal.
Those on the tour were able to experience the smooth surface of the runway, which contrasted with areas such as one of the taxi lanes where a slightly uneven ride was noticed. Kitchen said plans were in the works to address the remaining areas still impacted by blue clay.
Following the tour, Ralph Atkin, the founder of SkyWest Airlines, called the finished project “a beautiful runway.”
Atkin said he is also pleased that the airport is reopening so he and his wife can once again take flights to Los Angeles and Denver where some of their children and grandchildren live. Not having regular access to the flights was inconvenient, he said, as it cut down on “grandparent time.”
As for the new Dallas-Fort Worth location, Atkin shared the enthusiasm others had shown.
“I think that’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” he said.
The $26 million runway project was primarily funded by the FAA, with the city of St. George picking up 10% of the cost. The city’s portion was covered by a passenger fee fund.
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