Work on a new, longer runway at Raleigh-Durham airport could begin later this year


Raleigh-Durham International Airport will need to relocate part of a road and move tons of rock and dirt from elsewhere on airport property to replace its crumbling main runway, according to a new environmental study.

RDU says it needs a new parallel runway to maintain its current operations and accommodate future demand for air travel. The airport expects more than 7 million people will board flights this year, matching the pre-pandemic high in 2019. It forecasts that number will top 10.5 million in 2033.

The concrete on RDU’s main 38-year-old runway has begun to crack. Since 2019, crews working overnight have replaced about 250 concrete slabs where those cracks are deepest, a measure the airport’s environmental report calls “disruptive and costly” and “unsustainable.”

RDU officials hope the Federal Aviation Administration will use the environmental analysis to approve the new runway and recommend it for federal funding. The project is expected to cost about $400 million.

If the FAA approves, construction could begin later this year, with the first flights using the runway by the end of 2027. The existing runway would then be converted into a taxiway.

The new runway would be 537 feet northwest of the existing one in front of Terminal 2, the airport’s main terminal. That’s on the far side of the airport from neighboring William B. Umstead State Park, one reason the FAA didn’t require a fuller environmental analysis than the one RDU put out for public review Jan. 25.

You can read the report and learn how to comment on it at RDU and the FAA will hold a public workshop on the report at the RDU Center, 1000 Trade Drive, on Feb. 28, between 5 and 7 p.m., and accept public comments through March 13.

New runway means moving dirt and a road

The new runway would be 10,639 feet long, or 639 feet longer than the one it replaces. At that length, all aircraft that regularly use the airport now will be able to operate at full capacity.

The added length and the required safety zone around the runway would mean RDU would have to move a section of Lumley Road and demolish four buildings near where Lumley meets Mount Herman Road. The airport has already purchased those properties, including the former Ward Transformer Superfund site, and received permission from the N.C. Department of Transportation to relocate its road, at airport expense.

To build the runway, RDU will need to create a long, flat area level with the existing runway. To do that, it proposes moving lots of rock and dirt from wooded land it owns on both sides of Pleasant Grove Church Road, on the airport’s west side.

RDU contractors would clear the trees and blast the rock and dirt free. The airport must still decide how to get it to the airfield. One option is to truck it along Pleasant Grove Church and Nelson roads; the other is to build a conveyor system that would carry it across Brier Creek Reservoir and Aviation Parkway.

“The use of conveyor versus traditional trucking will ultimately be determined during final design,” according to the report.

Once the fill material is in place, contractors would spray it with up to 150 million gallons of water from Brier Creek Reservoir over a two-year period to compact the soil and get it ready for paving.

RDU also planning for additional gates

Opening a new runway and turning the existing one into a taxiway will give RDU room to expand Terminal 2.

Depending on the size of their planes, airlines can use anywhere between 29 and 33 gates at a time in Terminal 2. RDU has long-range plans to expand that number to 53, by building wings at either end and two more from the middle of the existing concourses.

Right now those plans are conceptual, said Bill Sandifer, the airport’s chief development officer. While the new runway could open in 2027, it would take another three years to finish converting the existing runway into a taxiway to make room for more gates.

“We can’t even start construction until that runway is out of the way,” Sandifer said.

In the meantime, RDU plans to add more gates to Terminal 1. There are nine there now, used by Southwest, Spirit and, starting Feb. 15, Avelo airlines. Sandifer said he expects RDU will need to add six to eight gates to Terminal 1 by 2030, with more space for ticketing and security and better connections to the parking decks.

“It will be a fundamentally different building in terms of how it needs to operate,” he said.

To keep up with passenger demand, he said, construction at Terminal 1 will need to be underway in 2026 or 2027.

RDU also wants to increase capacity by making better use of the gates it has. The average number of outgoing flights per gate now is about 4.7 a day, according to the airport’s numbers. Airport officials plan to work with airlines to increase that number to six or more flights per day.