WHEATLAND – There have been a lot of rumors circulating about the Phifer Field airport runway project and most of them are true.
The Town of Wheatland received a multi-million dollar grant from the federal government to upgrade and extend our airport and runway. It is part of a nation-wide program to improve airports in rural areas. While many residents will never have a need to use the property, it does serve a purpose in our community. Flight-for-life patients are flown out of that airport and it was utilized during the Britania Mountain wildfire last fall. It is used by businessmen and hobbyists and for crop dusting. There is also the possibility of tourists flying in and spending money in our town before flying back out. It has value and possibilities and Wheatland was chosen to be part of the first round of grants for this specific program.
T-O Engineers out of Cody was hired to design the project. The project was competitively bid and Paul Reed Construction out of Gering, Neb. was the low bidder to do the construction. Paul Reed Construction hired Croell as a sub-contractor to complete the paving needed for the runway and adjacent areas.
The entire project was supposed to be completed by now, but weather held up construction and altered the timeline. While the first two lifts of pavement was being paved, T-O Engineers came and tested different areas of the pavement and noticed early on there was a problem.
“It didn’t meet thickness or grade required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when they started paving. We told them it wasn’t right,” explained Josh Morris of T-O. “We asked for a correction plan and they tried several different methods to try and correct the problem.”
Croell tried to make adjustments, but when they finished paving the first lift of pavement and all tests and data were collected, reviewed and sent to the FAA, the FAA did not accept the pavement and further stated that it would not be eligible for payment by the grant.
The Town held an informational meeting for the individuals who were hoping to use the airport this year and were told it had to be redone and it will probably not open for use until next summer. The announcement was met with frustration and ire.
“Could the airplane owners sign a waiver to use the runway at our own risk?” asked Dallas Mount.
Mount has been paying for storage at another airport since he has not been able to use the hangar he has in Wheatland. One gentleman purchased a plane housed at Phifer Field and can’t move it. Several airplanes have been stranded there since the project began back in April and it looks like they are not going anywhere until next year some time.
“If it’s not good enough to pass, it’s not good enough to use,” said county attorney Doug Weaver.
The Town Council held another meeting with the engineer, contractor and sub-contractor to discuss the two options on the table for moving forward.
Option one was to take out the first lift of pavement and replace it. This is the option the engineers recommended as being the fastest solution.
Option two proposed by Croell was to add two more layers of pavement to the existing runway in the hopes that it would meet the FAA requirements. The problem with this idea is then everything adjacent to the runway would have to be redesigned and raised to match. And there is no guarantee that the FAA would approve the measure and then they would have to remove it all and start over anyway. The Council voted for option one.
“We had a contract to meet specifications and time and it wasn’t done,” Councilman Jamie Schindler said. “It needs to be done right.”
The Council stressed the importance of starting right away in the hopes that it might be able to be finished before winter sets in. Bill Britz said, “We cannot wait until next spring. We have people who need to use the runway.”
The pavement hot plant used to do the paving was needed for another project and won’t be back at the airport until late next month. If the weather doesn’t turn cold there is a slim possibility it can be completed before next spring.
“I want to apologize to the city. Could we have done things better, maybe,” said Croell representative Brian Marchant. “It’s a big hit to us, but we’ll do a nice job.”