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Morgantown hopeful state will back runway extension project

MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice was at the Greenbrier Valley Airport on Tuesday with a great big check for $5 million. 

The timing of the visit wasn’t lost on Morgantown Municipal Airport Executive Director Jonathan Vrabel, who, that same day, was pleading his case to state lawmakers. 

“We need your support. We really need support from the governor’s office. I know the governor has helped a lot of other communities in our state, particularly some airports, and provided some significant amounts of funding. We have yet to get any funding from the state,” Vrabel explained. 

The funding Vrabel is seeking is significant state investment in the airport’s 1,001-foot extension runway extension project.  

Morgantown’s city-owned airport is the state’s busiest in terms of takeoffs and landings with about 55,000 operations annually. It currently has the shortest commercial runway in the state. 

By comparison, Morgantown’s runway will be 6,200 feet after the extension. The runway at North Central West Virginia Airport, in Bridgeport, is currently 7,200 feet. 

Planning and investment in the extension began more than 15 years ago. 

According to The Dominion Post archive, the necessary initial groundwork — construction of a $10 million safety zone — took place in 2005. 

It was 14 years later, in 2019, before the Federal Aviation Administration signed off on the project. 

A groundbreaking ceremony was held in March 2021 and work on the extension finally began in earnest. 

And then the money just kind of dried up. 

“Our project is part of the federal process, which is typically funded 90% by the FAA, which means 10% comes from the local community,” Vrabel said. 

The city has already had to scale back the size of the phased projects due to the amount of FAA dollars coming in. For example, the current phase of the work, Phase III, was anticipated to be a $13 million project. The FAA allocated $3.5 million. 

It’s been explained that the runway extension is viewed as an expansion project, meaning it’s getting bumped by projects across the state deemed more safety-focused by the FAA. 

It’s also been noted that due to population and the number of people flying into and out of the state, the FAA gets a relatively miniscule amount of funding to distribute in West Virginia.

Whatever the reason, two years into what was originally expected to be a five-year, $50 million project, it’s now projected the work will take seven years to complete at a cost closer to $70 million. 

And the longer it takes, the more expensive it gets. 

Vrabel said it would be a huge lift to the project if the state would get involved, potentially triggering a matching allocation from the FAA. Pushed for a number, he said $20 million “would do wonders for us.” 

Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, said he would put the city in contact with the correct people close to the governor. 

“I’m telling you there’s money down there,” Statler said. “And clearly, the governor has access to a lot more money that he’s got control over than any of us in this room.” 

The runway project has long been touted as potentially the most important ever undertaken by the city. 

Officials have said the extension will enhance existing operations, improve safety and help retain and attract new businesses by allowing larger aircraft to fly directly into Morgantown. 

Further, the estimated 4.4 million cubic yards of dirt needed to support the extension is being pulled from the future site of the Monongalia County Development Authority’s I-68 Commerce Park, which, on its own, will be the largest development project in the city’s history. 

“We’re just trying to be a modern airport and a modern airport needs that length. The requirements have changed over time,” Morgantown Mayor Jenny Selin said. “We’re a busy airport. I would say we deserve a few feet.”