MARCO ISLAND — In the midst of a busy tourist season, the Marco Island Executive Airport is closing starting Monday for a three-month, $6.2 million runway overhaul.
“The 90-day time frame is based on how much time the contractor has to complete the work,” Airport Manager Robert Tweedie said. “We could reopen sooner if the contractor moves faster and gets the work done quicker, but we’re expecting them to take the full 90 days.”
The airport is undertaking the project during the height of tourist season for two reasons, Tweedie said.
“We’re at a very low elevation, just a couple of feet above sea level,” he said. “During the summer rainy season, you’re not going to be able to get rid of the water. You’re going to have a lot of standing water, and it wouldn’t be possible to rebuild the runway under those conditions.”
The other reason is crocodile nesting season.
“The areas at the north and east ends of the runway are adjacent to wetlands that are federally protected, and our grant stipulates that no work can be done during crocodile nesting season, which begins March 1 and goes until September,” he said.
Crews could have begun work a couple of weeks ago, but decided to wait until the holiday season passed, Tweedie said.
“We were very busy (over the holidays), and we pushed it back as far as we could,” he said.
The airport hosts an estimated 20,000 takeoffs and landings annually, with 70 percent of its traffic coming between Christmas and Easter, Tweedie said.
In season, that’s about 3,000 takeoffs and landings per month.
Other airports in Collier County will become landing spots for Marco Island-bound aircraft during the next three months.
“The traffic will move to Immokalee Regional Airport, Everglades Airpark and Naples Municipal Airport,” he said. “At times, we may have to assign (flights) to other locations when necessary.”
Mac Chaudhry, general manager of the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa, said the timing of the runway reconstruction isn’t ideal.
“There’s no way to tell how many of our guests use the (Marco Island) airport unless they mention it to us, but the majority of our guests come in February and March,” he said. “Hopefully, the airport will be nicer once they’re finished with the work. From a business standpoint, it’s bad timing, but if the work has to be done, it has to be done.”
Rick Medwedeff, general manager of the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort Golf Club & Spa, agreed the timing isn’t great.
“You couldn’t ask for a worse time to shut down than the height of tourism season,” he said. “Will we lose business because of it? Probably not. But it’s an inconvenience to a corporate executive who’s looking for convenience. It’s definitely not a positive.”
Tweedie said the 5,000-foot by 100-foot runway at the airport on Mainsail Drive would undergo a complete rehabilitation.
“We’ll be going all the way down to the limerock base because the pavement has deteriorated to the point where a simple overlay can’t be done,” he said. “It has to be a full-depth reconstruction of the asphalt on top, the base material and the subgrade.”
Tweedie said the reconstruction would improve the stability, uniformity and strength of the runway.
“It’s really a much-needed improvement for safety,” he said. “The runway hasn’t been redone for 30 years, and it has deteriorated to the point where it was rated ‘poor’ by (the Florida Department of Transportation) in 2011. If it deteriorated any further, it could get to the point where it’s unusable.”
Other improvements targeted during the project will include replacing the runway lights and upgrading the runway’s drainage system.
Tweedie said 90 percent of the project’s cost is covered by a Federal Aviation Administration grant, while the remaining 10 percent would come from DOT.
“One hundred percent of the federal money comes from a ‘trust fund’ within the FAA,” Tweedie said. “The money comes from fuel taxes, waybills and passenger ticket taxes. It’s the aviation system paying for itself.”
Chris Curry, former executive director of the Collier County Airport Authority who in December took a job with the city of Tallahassee to oversee its aviation department, said the Marco runway project has been in the works a long time.
“You start off years in advance with an airport master plan, which generally covers 20 years of future development for the airport,” he said.
Curry said the Marco airport runway project began to pick up speed last year.
“As you get closer to the predicted time of the project, you really start to have involved meetings with the FAA and FDOT,” he said. “That’s what we were doing last year. We got a pavement report from an FDOT contractor that said the runway was in very poor condition, so that was another tool to let us know we needed to do this sooner rather than later.”