Parts of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport runway are deteriorating underground and will likely require more than just surface Band-Aids for repairs, an engineering consulting team told the Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday.
Casey Adamson, an aviation project manager for consulting firm Kimley-Horn, told the commissioners the runway has been “quilted” together over decades and subsurface conditions of the asphalt vary drastically. When taking core samples earlier this year, the top 7 inches of asphalt were largely intact while the bottom 7 inches of the sample fell apart in places, she said. The runway was covered with a 3-inch asphalt overlay in 2022 that was considered a “stopgap repair,” she said. Now testing has shown a bigger problem than anticipated.
A memo to the commissioners from Airport Director Dan Bartholomew said software modeling by the consulting team indicated parts of the runway have reached their useful life and remaining segments “have been determined to have between 6.2 and less than 20 years of useful life.”
But during an in-person work session with the commissioners, Bartholomew downplayed the risks of the runway.
“The pavement’s not going to fail tomorrow, but it’s not something we can ignore, either,” he said. “It’s not a danger. It’s not a safety issue. It’s not going to fail tomorrow, but it’s imminent.”
Bartholomew explained phrases used by engineers such as “imminent failure” have a different meaning than when used by a layperson. Bartholomew and the Kimley-Horn team said more engineering tests are needed before the consultant can recommend solutions.
“I guess the message here is that maintenance is going to be a battle up until something more permanent can be done to address the issues,” Nick Hogan, a pavement engineer with Kimley-Horn, told the commissioners.
Commissioner Francie Jacober, chairperson of the board, said the written report was more dire than the in-person discussion. She interpreted the report at face value when it said portions of the runway had reached their useful life.
“I was gasping when I read this,” Jacober said.
“Rather than gasp, we can take a deep breath,” responded Commissioner Patti Clapper.
The news about the runway’s condition is another confusing chapter in a long, drawn-out process that will determine what kind of upgrades are made at the airport in the future. The county is working on an airport layout plan — a blueprint for the future that will be reviewed by the FAA and dictate what projects the county will pursue and the federal funding sources available. Bartholomew said the layout plan will likely be submitted to the FAA next summer or fall. But County Manager Jon Peacock said the county cannot wait to address the current runway deteriorating until the layout plan is completed, reviewed and approved.
“The dilemma is one that we’ve talked about previously, is that we have an airport layout plan right now that has the runway in a different place than it is right now,” said Peacock, “so it’s unlikely that the FAA would make significant investments to any kind of major rebuild or even off-cycle maintenance or major maintenance, which is what we’re going to have to do.”
In other words, the county could be stuck with the bill for addressing current runway problems. The runway is scheduled to get covered with a seal coat and have cracks sealed this year. But the engineering team said there are bigger issues that won’t be addressed by that work. Freezing temperatures appear to be penetrating clay soils under the northern portion of the runway and can be aggravating the extensive cracking the asphalt is experiencing, according to the memo to the commissioners.
“There will come a time when the repairing and patching probably won’t be sufficient, but I can appreciate from our engineering friends it’s difficult to project when that is,” Peacock said. “There’s a balance point here where conditions have reached a point where there is some urgency to doing the long-term fix, but it’s not emergent. We don’t have to make a precipitous decision.”
Clapper said the ideal long-term solution would probably be to rip up the runway, remove the problem soils, replace them with a more reliable base and build a new runway.
A sizable faction of the community doesn’t want the county to pursue a new runway that would accommodate larger commercial and private aircraft. They believe it will trigger more growth and noise.
Peacock agreed with Clapper that the rebuilding of the runway will be the time the county addresses the underlying causes of the runway deterioration. “We’ve got to keep the runway safe,” he said.
Kimley-Horn is going to undertake more tests and use the results to recommend a plan of action to extend the life of the existing runway. The plan of action will probably be part of the county’s 2024 budget process, Peacock said. The commissioners said they would like to hear about the runway rehab plan as a separate item.
Scott Condon | Aspen Daily News I August 23, 2023