VTR runway could close for days at a time

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 24, 2009

Vicksburg-Tallulah Regional Airport board members were to meet today to see if there’s a way to keep the airport open while a contractor works to upgrade the facility. Otherwise, the runway will be closed during the week until repairs are made.

Runway lights at the Mound airport burned out about three months ago, forcing the airport to purchase less effective solar lights, VTR board member Dan Fordice told Warren County supervisors Thursday.

Though the Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to pay a $250,000 repair bill, Fordice said, a problem has emerged from rules governing a $4 million federal grant financing work under way on a parallel taxiway.

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West Monroe-based D&J Construction says a 10-foot space between the runway project and any other work is required, forcing some planes — including the leased U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley Division jet — to land elsewhere, perhaps for months.

If a middle ground cannot be reached, the airport may switch to a Friday-through-Sunday schedule for arriving and departing aircraft. Normally, planes may come and go around the clock seven days a week, with terminal staffing hours 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The new schedule could begin Monday, meaning the runway would be closed until Friday.

Randy Woods, VTR general manager, said he was contacting board members for a session this morning. While Vicksburg Municipal is an option for some pilots and aircraft, it is not for larger planes, including the federal aircraft.

“It’s a serious situation,” said Fordice, who also talked about ratifying an extension of a basic operation agreement between Vicksburg, Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish that expired in December. The four local governments signed on as partners for VTR in 1983 and the airport opened in 1993 after being built with a 90 percent FAA grant.

Along with an instrument landing system to aid nighttime landings, the federally financed renovations include a 5 percent match by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and are the most significant at VTR in years.

Though airport officials believe a workable solution is possible, Fordice spoke of ironies between VTR’s situation and everyday maintenance that continues uninterrupted at larger airports.

“When we’re cutting the grass, you can make an argument that the runway should be closed,” Fordice said.

Vicksburg officials have essentially shifted the city’s primary interest to Vicksburg Municipal Airport on U.S. 61 South. The airport’s terminal is being renovated and an airport layout plan recently created includes more expansion over the next 20 years, including a larger runway capable of handling commercial air traffic. Officials have worked to bring a $60 million defense testing facility to the local airport.

Talks between the Mississippi partners on ratifying the VTR ownership pact centers on setting of fuel prices and budgeting. Agreement appears to have materialized on unanimous support of the airport’s annual budget, while intense disagreement continues on fuel prices. Concerns over the airport’s eligibility for federal grants due to the contract length reportedly has simmered down. Originally, the FAA had been firm on a 20-year agreement to clinch a federal grant award.

In December, the owners settled on a draft version of a pact that directs VTR to notify both mayors and county/parish board presidents if fuel prices exceed prices for the region by more than 15 cents per gallon. Warren County supervisors contend the price should follow the market without any potential interference from local politics.

Low-lead fuel at VTR is selling for $3.25 a gallon, 22 cents less than below the 50-mile average, according to AirNav.com. At Vicksburg Municipal, it is listed at $3.54 a gallon, or 7 cents more. Jet fuel sells for $3.40, 6 cents less than the average for the same radius. It sells for $3.18 at Vicksburg, or 16 cents less than the 50-mile average.

No specific definition is delineated in the draft that emerged in December.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at dbarrett@vicksburgpost.com