Tacoma airport runway tunnel safety project complete

Published 20 August 2009

The tunnel’s 3-foot-thick walls and roof and 2.4 million pounds of rebar are a reflection of the project’s main goal — safety; fire monitoring system set for September completion

The Pierce County Tacoma Narrows Airport hosted a public open house last week to celebrate the completion of the $15.5 million airport and runway safety project. The main component is the 530-foot tunnel, also referred to as a lid, which protects vehicles and pedestrian traffic on Stone Drive in the event of an airplane making a short landing.

The Peninsula Gateway’s Nate Hulings writes that the tunnel’s 3-foot-thick walls and roof and 2.4 million pounds of rebar are a reflection of the project’s main goal — safety. Mike Pickett, PAVCO Flight Center owner, said the safety area will save lives in the event of a short landing, or if a plane runs off the runway. “We’ve had seven landings off the runway at that end,” Pickett said. “If anyone of them had gone another 50 feet, there may have been fatalities.”

Pickett said the Federal Aviation Administration began looking into runway safety areas in 1988 after an airplane crash in Iowa.

Before the recent upgrades, the area was not flat and had about a 30-foot face, placing both airplanes and vehicles in danger. Now, a short landing has less of a chance of hitting Stone Drive, and pilots have a flat surface on which emergency landings can be made.

Ziad Farrah, a county public works employee who worked on the construction side of the project, said taxpayers come out ahead because the FAA funded 95 percent of cost. “It’s a good deal for the community of Pierce County,” Farrah said.

The project was mandated by the FAA. A tunnel was the most economical option for the safety area, Farrah said. A road re-route would have to have gone completely out of the safety zone area, increasing cost.

Some residents have questioned the use of a 24-hour guard parked near the east entrance of the tunnel, but the fire monitoring system is still being modified. Until it’s completely installed, the Pierce County Fire Marshal has ordered the guard, county construction manager Jerry Bryant said.

The county expects contractors to pick up the bill for the guard until the tunnel’s fire monitoring system is complete next month, county airport projects manager Pam Knauer said.

County officials said that, when the City of Tacoma started the project, plans for the heat detection service were not passed on to the consultant. Once it is complete, the linear heat detection system will alert local fire stations.

The tunnel doesn’t run under the runway, and the new lid was not structurally designed for runway use.

Bottom line? The county has no plans to extend runway length, Bryant said.

The tunnel also is equipped with closed-circuit TVs in order to monitor any incidents. The county acquired the airport and the project late last year. At that time, the City of Tacoma already had completed about 60 percent of the construction. “It is good that they did it,” Pickett said. “Things like that (tunnels) prevent people from getting killed down the road.”