Long Haul Runway to Hong Kong? Phooey!

Dean Lindberg
Southside Pride July 2001

"In 1997, the State of Minnesota determined that Hong Kong nonstop service will bring more than $45 million a year to the host city." That grand pronouncement, published by the Metropolitan Airports Commission in September 1999, was used as the airport’s "purpose and need" to stretch the crosswind runway 1,000 feet toward the historic Camp Coldwater spring.

The additional 1,000 feet would allow fully loaded Northwest Airline 747s to take off during 80 to 90 degree summer days, when high temperatures hinder take-off performance.

Despite the dazzling MAC and Northwest’s economic projections, a lack of ticket sales grounded the Hong Kong flight in 1998. But while the dearth of interest in the flight, and advances in jet engine technology are making the need for a longer runway increasingly obsolete, MAC plans to march ahead.

In its 1999 Environmental Assessment for the runway project, MAC officials declared: "It is therefore determined that the proposed (runway extension) project will not have an effect on the integrity of the historic features of the Camp Coldwater Spring/Reservoir."

However, Southside residents playing connect-the-dots with MAC statements draw a different conclusion. They claim the Hiawatha Avenue/Crosstown intersection must be excavated some 30 feet deep to meet federal height restrictions created by the runway’s extension toward the highway.

To comply with the new height restrictions, the intersection’s deep excavation and drainage systems may draw much of the subterranean water supply away from Coldwater Spring, and divert it into a wayside pond and sewer system instead. Critics have scoffed at the MAC’s position that the runway extension poses no threat to the spring: If the runway wasn’t extended, the intersection could be constructed up to 50 feet higher — enough elevation to leave the spring’s water source undisturbed.

The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District is currently seeking court orders that will force the Minnesota Department of Transportation to guarantee the spring will remain undamaged by highway construction. Because the Legislature rejected MnDOT’s proposal to overturn a law that protects the spring, the watershed district’s efforts to save the spring have improved. Pam Blixt, watershed district president, said that suggestions to elevate the intersection to protect the spring have been nixed by airport planners.

With that option scuttled, the legal tussle between MnDOT and the watershed district over the spring’s future may slow the intersection’s construction.

The historic, threatened spring was the center of the Camp Coldwater pioneer community which existed from 1820 until the late 1830s. The spring was born eons ago when glaciers made their restless retreat from North America. Fort Snelling records document 85 settlers living in Camp Coldwater in 1836. Explorer and scientist Joseph Nicollet studied the spring in 1836, and described its remarkable flow and consistent temperature of 46 degrees in his field journal. In later years, An extensive pipeline brought the spring’s water to the entire Fort Snelling post.

Since 1959, Coldwater Spring has existed in quiet repose behind the chain-link fence surrounding the 27-acre Bureau of Mines campus. However recent Hiawatha Avenue protests have cast an unprecedented spotlight on the spring and its historic aspects, and perhaps brought some chagrin to highway and airport planners.

No flight, but build it anyway
In September 1999, NWA canceled the flight that spawned the runway extension plans. But MAC officials still pushed ahead, stating: "Although nonstop service to Hong Kong was discontinued, the MAC desires to provide adequate runway length for this service when the economy improves in the Pacific Rim, regardless of the air carrier providing the service."

Airport critics note that the performance of the long-range Boeing 777—currently being used by NWA code-sharing partner Continental Airlines—pulls the last scrap of carper from under the MAC argument for extending the runway. The 777 requires less runway length than the 747s used by NWA for long-haul flights. And more importantly, the 777 can make nonstop flights to Hong Kong from nearly all major U.S. cities. The ability to operate from most east and west coast cities— where the bulk of the Hong Kong passenger base exists—gives a virtual trump card to any airline competing with Northwest for the Hong Kong market.