Logan adding a $65m runway fail-safe

Extension into harbor stirs multiple concerns

Work on the runway extension began in June and is set to finish in 2013. Work on the runway extension began in June and is set to finish in 2013. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / August 22, 2011

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Logan International Airport has launched a $65 million project that will close the airport’s longest runway for at least six months and extend it hundreds of feet into Boston Harbor.

The project, which began in June, has required careful orchestration to balance environmental and neighbors’ concerns with the pounding of pile drivers and the arrival and departure of about 1,100 flights a day.

“This is a project that costs a lot of money, and we will hopefully never have to use it,’’ said Edward C. Freni, the airport’s director of aviation.

The undertaking, paid for mostly by federal grants and scheduled to be completed in 2013, will extend the existing runway safety area 400 feet on a hulking pier upheld by more than 300 concrete pylons that are being bored into the seabed.

On top of the pier, contractors will extend a specially designed system of “soft concrete’’ designed to stop an out-of-control jumbo jet moving at 70 knots, one that perhaps has lost its brakes.

But the project’s impact on eelgrass, a critical habitat for fish and shellfish, and the diversion of flights to other runways have upset some neighbors, who have complained about an increased number of planes flying over homes in East Boston, Winthrop, and Chelsea. They say the additional noise has been hard to take and have lobbied the Massachusetts Port Authority, which oversees Logan, to provide soundproofing for homes.

“We opposed this project because we thought there were other ways to do this that would have had less of an impact on the eelgrass and the homes,’’ said Mary Ellen Welch, a spokeswoman for Airport Impact Relief, a group that represents Logan’s neighbors. “We experience the impact of this every day now.’’

Stewart Dalzell, deputy director of environmental planning and permitting at Massport, said officials chose the method that would have the least environmental impact.

Six years ago the Federal Aviation Administration asked more than 500 airports nationwide to extend their runway safety zones. So far, 65 percent of those airports have completed their projects, said Jim Peters, an FAA spokesman for New England.

Unlike many airports that have simply extended their runways another 1,000 feet to comply with the requirements, Logan did not have additional land to lengthen Runway 33L, which abuts the water. Airport officials considered various options, including adding fill to the harbor to extend the runway. But Logan officials decided on the more expensive pier because it would have less of an impact on currents and shellfish habitats.

“This was the best way to mimimize the impact on the environment,’’ Dalzell said.

The project is affecting more than an acre of eelgrass, which has become increasingly rare in Boston Harbor and provides a critical habitat for crabs, lobster, flounder, and other juvenile fish and shellfish.

As part of the approval process, state environmental officials required the airport to dig up as much eelgrass as possible and transplant it to other parts of the harbor. Dalzell said more than a million shoots of eelgrass were removed from the construction zone in June and planted within 24 hours, mostly along White Head Flats off Hull.

“We see this as a good example of an important public safety project that will strengthen a critical habitat,’’ said Bruce Berman of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, an advocacy group that pushed for the Boston Harbor cleanup.

After a team of divers removed the eelgrass, Logan last month halted all flights landing or taking off from Runway 33L until the end of September. The runway, which will reopen for use in October but close again next summer, often goes unused this time of year.

“It hasn’t been the least bit disruptive to flights,’’ Freni said.

Contractors have brought in several large cranes, which have already installed about a quarter of the support beams for the pier.

When they finish the project, a similar but much smaller runway safety zone will be built on an adjacent runway.

Peters said the project is worth the price: “This is an investment in safety.’’

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Clarification: An initial reference in this story about the extension of a runway safety area at Logan International Airport may have left the impression that the portion of runway used routinely by jets was being extended. The expansion involves only the section designed to stop planes that overshoot the main part of the runway.