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Building an airport from the ground up? That job's almost done in North Dakota

Building an airport from the ground-up? That job's almost done in North Dak,ph01
The new Williston Basin International Airport will feature a modern terminal to handle the growing number of passengers flying into the area.

Airport construction is a constant in the United States. A recent report by Architectural Record says more than 50 airports are expected to combine for up to $70 billion in construction projects during the next three years, all to modernize aging facilities.

But ground-up airport construction? Building a new airport from scratch? That’s rare. It’s happening, though, here in the Midwest, just outside of the city of Williston in North Dakota.

Construction is nearly done on the new Williston Basin International Airport, whch will replace Sloulin Field, the outdated and aging airport that passengers now use to fly into the Williston area.

The new airport will open Oct. 10, providing a modern facility that visitors to this area haven’t experienced while flying into Sloulin. That airport, built in 1947, has long been outdated and has struggled to keep up with the increased air traffic to the area. The new facility will include two runways and a 110,000-square-foot terminal building. It will also feature a restaurant, bar and concession area, modern amenities that today’s air travelers expect.

Sloulin Field will shut down once its replacement opens.

Ground-up airport construction is unusual today. But Anthony Dudas, airport director at Williston Basin International Airport, said that the growing population of this slice of North Dakota – thanks to the oil boom taking plae here –and the resulting increase in flights to Sloulin, made this the right time to tackle such a major project.

“We have had an explosion in economic activity in the Williston area,” Dudas said. “This began in 2009 and really took off in 2011 in western North Dakota. With fracking and horizontal drilling, with the energy companies getting more efficient with oil extraction in the Williston Basin, the area just started to grow in population.”

Sloulin Field did serve western North Dakota well for many years. But in 2012, Sloulin added commercial jet service from Delta and United. With this addition, the field’s limitations became obvious. The airport needed to be upgraded to meet safety standards. The runway is too far from the actual terminal. The terminal building itself is too small.

The runway itself is a major issue. Sloulin Field’s runway is designed for aircraft carrying 30 passengers or less. It was designed for airplanes weighing 25,000 pounds or less. Today’s small jets typically weigh 53,000 pounds.

Dudas said that Sloulin Field’s runway isn’t unsafe. But the heavier jets and increased traffic do degrade it at a faster rate. This requires near constant maintenance from the airport to make sure that the runway remains safe.

“It’s like when you have overweight traffic on an asphalt road,” Dudas said. “You get the rutting of the pavement. That is what we see on the runway at Sloulin now. We do maintain the runway to make sure operations are safe. But a 20-year pavement is lasting less than 10 years right now.”

Why not, then, just upgrade Sloulin Field? Dudas said that building a new airport was actually more cost-effective than trying to rehab Sloulin.

The numbers tell the tale: In 2009, about 11,000 people flew out of Sloulin Field. In 2014, 120,000 people were flying out of the facility. And these passengers were flying in larger jets. The field was never designed to handle such capacity.

Sloulin’s location made upgrading the facility a challenge, too. As the economy in the Williston area started to boom, so did construction. Crews built new apartment buildings, retail centers, hotels and single-family homes around the airport. Dudas said this hemmed in the airport, making it more difficult to expand the facility. Renovating Sloulin would have required the relocation of businesses and homes, a costly proposition.

“The city made great efforts to design this new facility so that it would be the right size for our needs today with the flexibility to expand in the future,” Dudas said. “We were also focused on meeting the necessary federal safety and design standards that are in place.”

Dudas said that about 85,000 to 90,000 people will fly into Williston this year. This comes out to about 300 passengers hitting the airport during the busiest times of day. This traffic necessitated the larger airport space and the extra amenities that the new facility will provide, Dudas said.

“Our new airport will have the modern amenities that any passenger should expect in an airport today,” Dudas said. “A lot of these items we don’t have at Sloulin because of a sheer lack of space. We also didn’t have the need for them before.”

The new airport will also have passenger boarding bridges so that travelers won’t have to walk outside to enter their planes. The facility will also feature a room for nursing mothers and a children’s play area. All restrooms, both for men and women, will have changing tables.

On the operational side, Williston Basin International Airport will have a larger checkpoint space for TSA security and a larger area for screening bags. Rental car operations will also be onsite.

Supporting facilities will be connected to the airport, too. The airport’s firefighting and snow-removal facilities, for instance, will be connected to the main airport.

Finding the right contractors to work on this project was no easy task. The city of Williston had to follow certain guidelines because the airport project did receive federal and state funding. Dudas said that more than 30 contractors have been working on the airport at any one time. All of these firms had to go through qualification selection.

Dudas said that the city selected these firms based on their experience with past projects and on similar jobs.

“It was about their understanding of the project and how they planned to complete their jobs,” Dudas said. “It was all about finding the right personnel to design and complete this work.”

The city of Williston turned to the construction management-at-risk delivery method for this job. With this method, the owner of a project selects and hires a design firm. Once the designer is chosen, the project moves forward with the earliest stages, the design of the facility.

The owner then signs a second contract, this time with a construction manager, when the design process gets closer to completion, usually when it is anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent completed.

The goal in breaking up the project into these two distinct phases is to develop a collaborative working relationship between the construction manager and designer. This should boost the odds that a major project, such as the building of a new airport, will run smoothly.

The city of Williston selected Burns & McDonnell and Alliiance to design and bid several of the key facets of the new airport. It selected JE Dunn to build the two-level international airport passenger terminal building and tackle key sitework. Cardon Global is the owner's representative on the project.

The construction management-at-risk system made the most sense for the city of Williston, Dudas said.

“If we hadn’t gone with this model, we’d be responsible for the construction oversight of the project. That would be a huge challenge for us,” Dudas said. “We don’t have the staffing to do that or the expertise. The construction management-at-risk process method has helped get us through the process and get the construction done in the timeframe we needed.”