Lambert-St. Louis International Airport recently wrapped up the largest capital improvement project in St. Louis history and one of the largest in Missouri history.
The airport expansion, which adds one runway to the airport but no new gates or square footage at the terminal, is approximately twice the size of the Cross-Country MetroLink Extension, the next-largest St. Louis area construction project currently under way.
After the ribbon was cut on the expansion, politicians and airport officials were aboard the first plane — a corporate jet — that landed using the new runway. There were speeches and a celebration for the opening of the long-awaited expansion.
But not everyone was celebrating. The expansion, which gave the airport its first new runway in 50 years, has taken its place with the MetroLink expansion as the most controversial projects in St. Louis history.
Opponents of the expansion, including many who had lost their homes in the buyout, decried what they called “airpork” and destruction of viable neighborhoods.
All along opponents had questioned whether another runway was really necessary especially after TWA was absorbed by American Airlines. When American Airlines faced problems of its own and instituted drastic cuts to remain solvent, the opponents were even more vocal.
The price was literally and figuratively too high, they said. Ultimately, the dollar cost was $1.1 billion dollars — actual construction cost of the runway was $77 million. The human costs included the loss of 2,000 properties, including more than 1,900 homes.
But proponents said a new runway would reduce delays in bad weather, make the airport more efficient and stimulate growth in the area.
The project’s history has been long and rocky. Plans for the expansion were laid more than a dozen years ago.
A master plan developed in 1992 indicated more runway space would be needed in the future, and that a new runway should be built, said Chuck Reitter, public information manager for the Lambert Airport Expansion Program.
After looking at 30 different configurations for the new runway, airport officials, in a master plan supplement four years later, recommended the plan known as the W-1-W alternative be built.
“The problem with the existing Lambert is more than any other major airport in the country weather affects flights,” he said. “These two main runways are too close together to use when weather conditions require an instruments-only landing. That happens about 14 percent of the time. The problem is that 14 percent of the time Lambert’s down to one runway and that backs up aircraft. They’re either up in the sky circling or down on the tarmac and that costs airlines money.”
Reitter said that airports serve two functions — to provide an efficient infrastructure for airlines and to provide a pleasant, efficient, appealing infrastructure for passengers — parking facilities, concourses and terminals.
The expansion addresses the former, but not the latter, he explained.
“But now airlines can come into Lambert knowing they’re not stuck with being down to one runway 14 percent of the time,” he said. That makes St. Louis more likely to experience a growth in the number of airlines and flights per day, he added.
“The expansion program actually began Sept. 30, 1998, with a record of decision, which is the FAA’s way of saying, ’Yes, Lambert, you’re approved to go ahead and do it,’” Reitter said.
The city of Bridgeton, which stood to lose a good part of its population, filed litigation immediately. The suit wound its way through the court system up to the supreme courts at the state and the federal levels.
“All of the court cases were in favor of the airport,” Reitter said. “When the two supreme courts decided not to review the lower court’s decisions, that ruling stood. What it really did was set back the onset of construction two years.”
Although construction couldn’t begin until July 2001, the land acquisition program did, however, begin right away. The airport recently finished tendering offers to everyone in the noise buyout area.
The expansion didn’t add new gates or square footage to the terminal, but it was nonetheless a massive project.
To involve a large number of contractors and consultants, the city broke the expansion into 80 separate projects with 14 lead design contractors, 18 prime construction contractors and 50 demolition contractors and used more than 550 companies including 100 disadvantaged businesses, Mike Minges, program manager for the expansion management office, said.
To manage the design and construction, the city of St. Louis, which owns the airport, hired Sverdrup (now Jacobs), Parsons and Kwame Construction Group (SPK), a joint venture.
Fred Weber Inc./Millstone-Bangert Inc., another joint venture, was prime construction contractor for the runway construction and paving. McCarthy-Mosley, another venture contractor, built a traffic tunnel on Lindbergh Boulevard.
Prime electrical contractor was Sachs Company. Dave Kolb Grading did most of the earth-moving. Mosley Construction, a 30 percent joint venture partner on the Lindbergh Tunnel construction, installed the mud slab and the footings for the tunnel.
The new runway is 9,000 ft. (2,743 m) long and 150 ft. (45.7 m) wide with two parallel taxiways.
“In order to build that runway, one of the major crossings was Lindbergh Boulevard,” Steve Pembleton, construction manager for the project as part of the SPK joint venture, said. “One of the initial decisions was what to do with Lindbergh, and the decision was to put it into a tunnel under the new airfield. It was decided this was the best alignment for Lindbergh — to go under the runway to separate them so the airfield has uninterrupted length and the traffic is below.”
The result is the first and only traffic tunnel in the state of Missouri. The logistics of creating new roads before the structures were demolished was a challenge.
“The basic cut for the Lindbergh corridor was one of the first things we had to do to start the interchange for Lindbergh,” he said. “That dirt had to go west. It had to go into the deepest part of the fill under the west end of the runway. That area had to be bought out so we could move that dirt. Before we could start any of those contracts, we had to have some of the land at both of those locations bought out.”
“One of the challenges was tying the work with the land acquisition program so we could treat people with respect and dignity as they were moving out, but we had construction schedules to meet as well,” Reitter said. “That’s where Steve [Pembleton] and Mike [Minges] worked closely with the land acquisition people to phase it all so folks were given an opportunity to move out in time for the construction in those areas.”
Utilities posed another problem for the logistics team. The project impacted utilities that “feed a lot of the North County area,” Pemberton said. “The whole area was surrounded by residential and commercial use so we couldn’t interrupt any of their services.”
To help keep the utilities work on time, a full-time SPK employee was assigned to staying in touch with the utility companies to help coordinate their work forces.
“So they knew where we needed them next and when would they need to be completed so they wouldn’t hold up the rest of the program,” Minges said. “We had incredible cooperation with the utilities. That was a big key. Everybody in the program — all the utility companies — knew what the game plan was.”
To prepare the site for the construction, crews:
• Realigned seven majors roads
• Completed $20 million in utility relocations
• Poured tons of concrete
• Moved more than 10 million yd. of soil
• Built one fire station and paid for construction of another
In addition, the project bought six churches and two Catholic schools and closed two public schools.
As in many projects, timing was crucial, but even more so in this project where funding depended on early construction components being completed, the team said.
Through intensive planning and scheduling, “we were able to predict pretty much when these packages would come to a completion and then how those fit together because some of these float on top of each other,” Pembleton said. “We had to be pretty much assured that when we finish with one or a part of one where another one hooked onto, we had to be ready. Otherwise, that’s where you see these big programs just spiral out of control where you have huge claims, delay claims, all kinds of things start happening with the contractors.”
He said the project did not have one claim because “we planned well and partnered with the contractors.”
“So we had to layer all that in and put this phasing together to make sure it all worked,” Minges said. To do that, the team put together a 5,000-activity master schedule.
“And, that doesn’t include all the detail activities for the project,” Minges said.
The team divided the expansion area into zones based on availability for construction with the western zone being the most critical for the earth moving operation.
It was the deepest fill and it was going to “end up underneath the runway pavement,” Pemberton said. “So when you put in 80 to 90 feet of fill, you’re going to have settlement. We tracked the settlement. We knew how much settlement we expected to have, and we could not put any concrete on that fill until we had attained virtually all the settlement that was expected. We needed about a year from the time we put this fill out here until we started putting concrete on it. When we got virtually 95 per cent of that settlement, we would release the contract to start paving.”
Weather was a significant factor in the project.
“We had some weather periods in this whole program where we lost months,” Minges said.
Rain would fall for a couple of days, let up for a day and then start again, Pembleton said.
Loss of work due to the weather was a reality because none of the project was actually under cover.
“It’s not like a building — once you get it under a roof, you’re there,” he said. “You control your destiny. Out here, you don’t control your destiny because you’re always working out in the open.
“Unlike a lot of people, we hope for rain on weekends,” he quipped.
“We built in weather days into the contract so the contractor already has to bid it and look at it from a resource standpoint that there’s a possibility I could use X amount of weather days. That’s determined on the national climatic weather data for this area. It was up to 110 days per year. You had to figure that because you don’t get any time extension if we get 110 weather days. If we have 120 days, you get 10 additional days.”
Another controversy swirled around air quality when questions were raised about whether the expansion was taking proper precautions with asbestos in the demolition.
“In 1999 the airport went to the St. Louis County Department of Health and laid out its asbestos abatement plan, and the county okayed it,” Reitter said. “The airport used the asbestos abatement plan the county had approved, and the county was out here all the time looking over our shoulders to abate the structures.
“In May 2004, the Post-Dispatch [the local daily newspaper] had an article, and folks thought it was a big issue. Basically, the airport’s position is that we’re not environmental regulatory authorities. That’s why we went to a regulatory authority. We went to St. Louis County who is the EPA’s representative in this issue, and we did just what they told us.
“In fact, the EPA came out and said, ’Yes, Airport Expansion, you’re doing a good job doing what St. Louis Co. Department of Health and the EPA has told you to do.’ The issue came up nationwide in other areas and we kind of got pulled in that.”
The EPA asked the expansion to put work on certain structures on hold to conduct tests to determine alternative methods of abating structures.
“As always, the airport just follows what the regulatory authorities tell us we can do and what we can’t do,” Reitter said.
To prepare the soil for the project through the wet weather, great amounts of lime were added to dry it out, Minges said.
Workers laid crushed rock and then permeable concrete for drainage in constructing the runway. Conduits and cans for in-pavement lighting fixtures then were cut into the permeable concrete. A final layer of concrete 18 in. (45.7 cm) deep was poured over the top of it.
During the height of the construction crews poured a quarter of a mile of pavement 37 and-a-half ft. wide daily. At peak 500 dump truck loads of concrete were poured every day.
“We did slip-form paving so there were no forms on this,” Reitter said. “We had three paving machines running serial, one behind the other, to actually pour the concrete.”
The runway and taxiways have nearly 75 mi. (121 km) of wiring and 62 mi. (99.8 km) of duct banks carry utility wires and piping underground.
Officials are proud of the diverse workforce involved in the project. While the diversity wasn’t required, “the city and the airport really wanted to make an impact with minority and woman participation in the actual workforce because that’s where you really get some money that comes back to the local communities,” Minges said.
Minorities provided 21.6 percent of the man hours on the project and approximately 8 percent was done by females.
“We couldn’t have done it without the contractors’ cooperation but a lot of people thought it couldn’t be done because of the unions,” Minges said. “The unions worked with us, the contractors worked with us and that’s why we’ve been successful with it.”
The success of the expansion program is “a tribute to our whole design construction industry in St. Louis,” Minges said. “It could never happen without the quality of the contractors we have here.”
Officials are also proud of the project’s safety record which is 25 to 30 percent below the national average on lost time and reportable injuries.
The safety record didn’t just happen — it resulted from vigilance and work on the part of the team.
“When a lost time accident occurred, within a couple weeks of the paper work being filed, the superintendent and principal for the construction and the construction manager and the safety manager had a review meeting with the engineer on the project to review what had happened, what could have been done to avoid it and what they were going to do in the future to avoid it happening,” Pemberton said.
“That brings focus to the ownership of the contractor saying, ’You have a moral obligation to protect your people.’”
The owner took safety seriously too, he said. “In a couple of cases, the prime contractor along with the airport director discuss some issues.”
When it was observed that there were a lot of four wheelers on the site, officials saw a potential problem with the heavy equipment working in the area.
“We said we wanted regular vehicles — we didn’t want the four-wheelers anymore because of the safety factor,” he said. That simple move helped reduce the risk of accidents at no additional cost to anyone involved.
Minges and Pemberton cited SPK’s planning and handling of potential problems and the contractors’ cooperation as reasons for the project’s success.
“We’re tough because we have to represent the owner and the FAA,” Pemberton said. “We have to produce quality work but on the other hand, we work hand in hand with the contractors to get things done. When a problem arises, it’s not only their problem, it’s our problem too. We always try to work those things out.”
The project garnered several awards including the Associated General Contractors of America’s Marvin M. Black Excellence in Partnering Award.
As opening date for the runway approached, another controversy arose.
The airport commission voted to allow an American Airlines maintenance hangar to remain within 2,500 ft. (762 m) of the new runway at least through the end of 2007. That limits landings on the new runway to those from the east during low visibility.
Expansion proponents said the old runways couldn’t handle simultaneous landings during bad weather, and that was a major reason for adding the third runway. CEG