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By Emma Dill, posted Jun 7, 2024
A rendering shows how a major upcoming project will enhance the function of Wilmington International Airport's entrance. (Rendering courtesy of Wilmington International Airport)
As officials gear up for future growth, several projects are getting ready to take off at Wilmington International Airport.

Last month, state and local transportation leaders signaled plans to fund the widening of 23rd Street – a move airport officials say will improve traffic flow and accommodate future economic growth. The airport is also undergoing a voluntary noise study that aims to measure the noise impacts from aircraft flying into and out of ILM and identify ways to reduce the impacts.

Meanwhile, airport officials embarked earlier this year on a $105 million project that will realign roads, straighten the curb at the airport’s terminal and reconfigure its parking area. ILM received $4 million from the Federal Aviation Administration to help fund the project earlier this year.

These efforts come as the airport has hit passenger records, serving more than 1.3 million passengers in 2023. ILM was the fastest-growing airport in North Carolina in 2023 and the fourth-fastest-growing airport in the U.S. based on an increase in the number of seats allocated to the airport by airlines.

The airport’s seat capacity increased 23% during 2023, compared to a statewide average increase of 14% and a national average growth of 10%, airport officials said earlier this year. That growth came as the airport has added new routes and airlines, including Avelo Airlines and Sun Country Airlines. Five airlines now operate 20 nonstop routes out of ILM.

The parking improvements, coupled with the widening of 23rd Street and the ongoing noise study, are efforts to prepare for the airport’s current and projected growth.

ILM officials requested economic development funding from state transportation officials in March for the 23rd Street widening, committing $1 million toward the project.

Discussions around widening 23rd Street arose in recent years as ILM staff worked on the airport’s vision plan. The process prompted staff to look at investments in roadways on airport property and along 23rd Street, the primary entry point to Airport Boulevard.

The project would add another northbound lane to 23rd Street between Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and Airport Boulevard. The project will improve traffic flow into the airport, align with other capital improvements and accommodate future economic growth, airport leaders say.

A 2022 study from the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation found that ILM contributes $2.5 billion in economic impact and supports more than 13,500 jobs in the region, including nearly 1,300 jobs that can be directly attributed to the airport.

Since 2022, the airport has signed nearly 164 acres of new lease area with 11 tenants in various stages of development, airport officials have said, including a bank, corporate aircraft hangars, a hotel and restaurant, an entertainment complex and three cold storage facilities, among other leases. These committed projects are expected to create about 700 new jobs.

NCDOT completed a feasibility study on the proposed road widening, and the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) has submitted the project for consideration as part of Prioritization 7.0, a process that helps determine when projects receive funding from NCDOT.

The estimated cost of the 23rd Street widening is $3.3 million, including $2.8 million in the project construction, utilities and right-of-way acquisition costs, according to NCDOT. The agency will contribute a combination of economic development and public access funding toward the project.

The project slated for funding would be a scaled-down version of an initial proposal that also included bike lanes and sidewalks. Last month, Mike Kozlosky, WMPO’s executive director, said funding for the road widening won’t delay other projects.

In another ongoing planning effort, airport leaders recently hosted an initial public input meeting for its Part 150 noise study. The voluntary study, funded by an FAA grant, kicked off earlier this year and will take 18 to 22 months, airport director Jeff Bourk told residents at the meeting last month.

Residents living in and around downtown Wilmington and in neighborhoods surrounding ILM have for years expressed concerns about aircraft noise levels, especially from military aircraft. In 2022, a noise abatement memorandum of understanding was established between the air traffic control tower in Wilmington to help put in place noise abatement procedures.

That has resulted in a reduction of noise complaints to the airport, Bourk told attendees, but he hopes the ongoing noise study will help reduce further noise impacts.

Once results from the study are in, the airport will be able to identify what can be done to mitigate the impacts of the noise and procedures that can be put in place to guide future flights. Completing the noise study also opens up the opportunity for additional federal funding, Bourk said.

The airport received FAA funding for the study last fall and selected airport consultant Coffman Associates Inc. to lead the study. The next steps include measuring the airport’s aviation noise and impacts and exploring potential noise abatement and alternative land use measures.

As the noise study and street widening move ahead, the airport is also working through the design phase of a $105 million project that will revamp the airport’s terminal curb and parking areas.

The airport’s current curb and parking layout aren’t sufficient to handle the drop-off and pick-up lanes the airport will need to accommodate its ongoing growth, Bourk told the Greater Wilmington Business Journal earlier this year. 

Work on the first phase of curb and roadway construction kicked off earlier this year, and the entire project is expected to be completed by the fall of 2026. The project will add 2,700 parking spaces and room for more dedicated lanes to ILM’s pick-up and drop-off area.

Construction is ongoing on the airport’s outer roads while ILM officials work to finalize the design of later phases, including the new terminal curb and parking garage, according to airport spokesperson Erin McNally.

Future projects will also include a $35 million terminal expansion and a $15 million project to improve one of the airport’s runways.
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