Unexpected challenges bring out project team’s best

Numerous design, permitting, schedule, and bidding ‘surprises’ are overcome to complete runway safety area improvements by mandated deadline.

Most projects include a surprise or two that challenge owners and their design consultants, but rarely do projects continue to present the unexpected on a regular and ongoing basis. This is an account of one of those rare projects, and how a diverse group of participants pulled together, continued steadfastly in spite of numerous obstacles, and successfully accomplished the project objective.

In the late summer of 2013, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (Vtrans-Aviation Program) approached consulting engineers DuBois & King with a request to assist the agency in the design of a runway safety area (RSA) at the Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport in Clarendon, Vt. Upon an initial review of the assignment, besides an aggressive schedule, no other red flags were apparent with the project. However, as the project got underway, the challenges started and kept coming until the day the ribbon was cut.

The Southern Vermont Regional Airport is certified by the FAA as a Part 139 airport and considered significant to U.S. air transportation, and eligible to receive federal grants for improvement projects. The airport experiences roughly 32,000 aircraft operations and 6,000 passenger boardings annually. The 314-acre facility is comprised of a primary runway (1/19), which is 100 feet wide by 5,003 feet long, and a cross runway (13/31), which is 75 feet wide by 3,170 feet long. Both runways are paved, with navigation aids on runway 1/19 only. Several taxiways connect the runways with aprons, hangers, fuel farm, and the terminal.

Following a number of accidents involving aircraft over shooting the end of runways, the U.S. Congress, in consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), mandated that Part 139 airports meet RSA requirements by the end of 2015. The purpose of the Rutland Airport project was to design and construct the RSA within the mandated timeframe. The general standard for the Rutland Airport RSA was a 500-foot-wide by 1,000-foot-long grass and gently sloping area, extending beyond the end of the runway.

To meet the 2015 deadline, obtain necessary funding through the FAA, and allow sufficient time to construct the project, the project design, permits, and construction bidding had to be completed and the grant application filed by the end of April 2014. Design, permitting, and bidding for the $10 million project needed to be complete in 10 months. Numerous surprises — yet to be revealed — reduced the actual time available for design, permitting, and bidding to roughly eight months.

Fairly early on it became apparent that the project posed unanticipated challenges to the owner and design team. Challenges included the following:

• Approximately 470 feet beyond the end of the runway is a localizer, which would need to be relocated to allow room for the new RSA. The localizer is a navigation aid under the control of the FAA Technical Operations. Any alteration activity around or relocation of this equipment would require close coordination with and detailed design would need to be provided by the FAA.

• Just behind the localizer was an embankment that drops approximately 100 feet in 400 feet with the majority of the drop accruing in the first 300 feet and 550 feet beyond the crest of the embankment is a local town road, Gorge Road. Approximately 300 feet beyond Gorge Road is the Mill River. In between Gorge Road and the crest of the embankment are wetlands and areas comprised of poor soils.

• The safety area of Runway 01 was constrained by the steep embankment, Class III wetlands, and a town road, posing a design challenge to extending the length of the runway. Just using fill was not an option. Because of the insufficient space for standard RSA improvements, the consultant utilized a 55-foot, two-tier reinforced earth retaining wall system (designed by a subconsultant) to extend the runway enough to accept an Engineered Materials Arrestor System (EMAS). FAA recognized that the natural obstacles and environmental constraints would make construction of a standard RSA impractical and determined that an EMAS could be used.

An EMAS is a bed of engineered, high-energy absorbing materials that will crush under the weight of aircraft, safely arresting overrunning planes. This first implementation of an EMAS in the state allowed a 40 percent reduction in the length of the RSA.

A two-tier, 55-foot-high retaining wall was constructed to lengthen
the runway to make room for the RSA.

There was only one FAA-approved EMAS designer/supplier in the U.S. (Zodiac Arresting Systems, ESCO). The design team had to work closely with and incorporate the EMAS manufacturer’s design into the plans. This was further complicated by the fact that with only one EMAS manufacturer, purchase of the system would be a sole-source procurement. Under Vermont State procurement regulations, a justification for such a purchase had to be developed and approved. Due to the long lead time for delivery of the product, a process for purchasing the EMAS blocks ahead of the overall construction contract had to be developed and implemented.

• Mountains flank the airport. Runway 1/19, due to its length, alignment, and navigation aids is the only runway that can accommodate larger aircraft or be used safely in poor weather conditions, which required it to remain operational during all phases of the project, including construction.

• A total of 17 separate entities’ input, review, and/or approval was required during the design and permitting phase of the project. Project participants included the FAA, VTrans, numerous state agencies and departments, the local municipality, the district commission, subconsultants, adjacent property owners, and equipment manufacturers. Permitting and agency coordination became a near constant activity for the consultant team.

• Access to the lower section of the construction site was an unpaved, narrow town road. The most practical access to the upper area was through an access gate on the west side of the airfield via a private industrial park road. The industrial park had been in negotiations with the town for the town to take over the road, but the town was not willing until certain improvements were made. To facilitate access for construction, negations and agreements had to be put in place between the state, town, and industrial park.

• Following issuance of the grant by FAA and the preconstruction conference (mid-September 2014), the selected contractor backed out of the project, something neither the Vermont Agency of Transportation nor FAA New England Division had ever experienced. Negotiations were immediately started with the next lowest bidder and a contract signed in the first week of November, losing several months in the construction schedule.

• The construction contractor began in November 2014. After establishing the perimeter erosion and sediment control measures, including a sediment pond, they proceeded clearing and preparing for the 55-foot retaining wall. With little time to allow the exposed soils to drain, site conditions quickly deteriorated to a point where the excavator sunk up to the cab. The geotechnical engineer in consultation with the contractor and the state arrived at an acceptable solution to allow work to continue. The contractor worked through the winter with temperatures well below zero on many days.

An EMAS is a bed of engineered, high-energy absorbing materials that will crush under the weight of aircraft, safely arresting overrunning planes. Photo: courtesy of ESCO

It was apparent that to be successful within the limited time available, a detailed critical path schedule and a highly effective communication and coordination program had to be developed and put in place for the duration. The detailed task items for all aspects of the design, permitting, and decision points were entered into the schedule, which was updated weekly during the design phase.

The communication and coordination plan had several parts. The primary element of the plan consisted of a weekly conference call between VTrans, the FAA, and the consultant. Along with an updated schedule, support materials were distributed in advance of the weekly call. If a decision or discussion that required coordination with another party needed to happen that week, the additional person(s) were notified and, in advance of the meeting, materials and information were distributed so informed decisions could be made. The calls served to coordinate the work efforts, make assignments, keep all participants engaged and informed, and review schedule status.

The second part of the program involved face-to-face meetings. These included meetings between the design team, FAA Technical Operations, ESCO, VTrans, state regulators, the town, etc. The purpose of these meetings was to keep all parties fully informed of the design intent so that issues or concerns could be identified and resolved as quickly as possible. There was no time for stepping backwards, so the right decision had to be made the first time and, to do that, all parties had to work closely and cooperatively. This resulted in advanced knowledge of the issues by the regulators so when a design submission was made or a permit application filed, the reviewer was fully up to speed and the issues resolved so the permit could proceed expeditiously.

For example, one meeting involved the town and the nearby industrial park; both were required to resolve the issue of construction access. The result was a win for all involved: VTrans was able to secure the right to use the private road for access during construction, the industrial park obtained an agreement from the town to take over the road following construction, and the town got the improvements (repaving) of the roadway it was looking for. Following the meeting, the consultant assisted all parties in drafting the written agreement.

The third part of the project communication plan was addressing the public component. The area surrounding the airport is a mix of rural residential, commercial, light industrial, farms, and undeveloped land. Proactive communications goes a long way in being a good neighbor and winning support for the project. Early in the project’s development, a mailing was sent out to all the adjoining property owners along with an advertisement in the local newspaper, inviting the public to a project information meeting. This gave the public/neighbors an opportunity to gain a full understanding of the purpose of the project, the elements involved, time line, and potential impacts (primarily traffic and noise during construction). This also provided the public an opportunity to ask questions and express concerns. A second public meeting was held prior to construction.

Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport RSA showing the EMAS and localizer.

The design, permitting, and construction bidding were completed in time to receive the funding from the FAA and the construction was completed by the 2015 deadline. Any successful project requires participants that are willing to work together. The project’s aggressive schedule and unexpected surprises seemed to serve to bring out unusual willingness for participants to pull together. Speaking from the perspective of the design consultant — in addition to the engineering and permitting challenges — defining the timeframe for activities and regularly organizing and reorganizing activities and communicating the updates to the project team became a key role of the consultant. When a shared goal can be established and people work cooperatively to understand each other’s issues, concerns, and perspectives, great things can be achieved.

Following are some of the accomplishments of this project:

  • Designed a $10 million project in roughly eight months involving 17 federal, state agencies and departments, municipal, and other entities.
  • The site topography limited adding a traditional RSA. The project team designed and constructed a 55-foot retaining wall to support a 100-foot by 300-foot RSA extension followed by a 100-foot by 300-foot EMAS — the first in the state of Vermont — meeting the FAA RSA requirements.
  • Working closely with FAA, the localizer was relocated to the south end of the EMAS. A 10-foot-tall platform had to be designed and constructed to maintain the proper vertical alignment of the localizer with the end of the runway. FAA required a control building for the localizer, which required design of an access road as well as new power service from the local utility.
  • Taxiway E (later renamed A) was designed and permitted as part of the project and extended to the end of the new runway section. In addition, to avoid back taxiing on the runway, taxiway D, located on the west side of Runway 1, was also designed and permitted and realigned to intersect with the new end of the runway.
  • A new section of perimeter road was constructed to provide access to the Localizer and to allow airport maintenance vehicles to access both sides of the airfield without having to drive across the runway.
  • A wastewater sewer line had to be relocated and placed in a sleeve under the runway and taxiway. As this force main serves the terminal building, the plans had to address maintenance of service during construction.
  • Drainage improvements required replacing and upsizing an existing culvert under the town road. Approval by the town was required along with a road closure plan that minimized impacts on local residents. The traffic control plan addressed both the culvert replacement and the overall construction activities.
  • In consultation with the airport manager and other members of the team, a detailed project safety and phasing plan was prepared that would keep the runway in operation throughout the duration of the project.
  • Permits for the project included an Army Corps of Engineers 404 permit, State Construction and Operational stormwater permits, and a Vermont State Land Use permit (ACT 250). Under ACT 250, the applicant had to identify all primary agricultural soils on the site then document and compensate for impacts. A number of state agencies participated in this process including the Agency of Agriculture.

Credit for the success of this project goes to the hard work of the project team, but even more for their cooperation and willingness to accomplish the project objectives given the constraints of the schedule and the unexpected challenges encountered along the way.


John Benson, P.E., is a vice president of DuBois & King (www.dubois-king.com), a multidiscipline planning, engineering, and environmental engineering firm, with headquarters in Randolph, Vt. In his fortieth year of providing civil engineering services, he was DuBois & King’s project manager for the RSA Improvements project at the Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport. Benson can be reached at jbenson@dubois-king.com.   

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