SANTA ROSA -- Construction is officially underway in the runway expansion of the Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport, a project that will bring the airport's runways up to current federal standards and potentially attract new commercial airlines and add destinations.

[caption id="attachment_79471" align="alignleft" width="400"] Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, airport manager Jon Stout, Rep. Mike Thompson, upervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt wielded shovels at the groundbreaking. (image credit: Eric Gneckow)[/caption]

Leaders in the $53.8 million project celebrated its start with a groundbreaking ceremony Aug. 28. The event attracted local government and tourism figures along with state and congressional representatives who have spent more than 12 years bringing the project to fruition.

"To say that today is a significant milestone is an understatement," said county Supervisor Mike McGuire, whose fourth district includes the airport area. The journey included 44 public meetings and project environmental-review documentation that would stack about 4 feet tall, he said.

With four distinct phases, the project is expected create 150 construction jobs and to be completed in late 2014 -- just shy of the 2015 deadline mandated by Congress.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in June approved a $22.7 million contract with Berkeley-based O.C. Jones & Sons for the first two phases of the project. Planned for completion during the 2013 construction season, the work will involve new lighting and other electrical systems and construction of a new taxiway.[poll id="85"] [poll id="87"]

The airport's two runways will be extended in the final two phases and will also be separated from the current configuration that intersects in a "V." The main runway will be extended by 885 feet to a new length of 6,000 feet. The second will be extended 200 feet, to 5,200 feet.

Three local companies were among the 13 subcontractors selected for the first two phases of the project: Cotati’s Neary Landscape, Healdsburg’s Terracon Pipeline and Santa Rosa’s Devincenzi Concrete Construction.

Work had originally been slated for completion this November. Yet the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service required additional environmental mitigation for nearby habitat that could theoretically host an endangered flower seen elsewhere on the property. That mitigation added approximately $10 million to the overall project cost and delayed construction by around one year.

Federal aviation grants will pay for the majority of the project. The county is responsible for matching 10 percent of the project cost, which will be paid for by a $5 million loan from the California Department of Transportation.

The office of Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who has spent years lobbying for federal funding to support the project, announced before the event that he had helped to secure a first round of nearly $40 million in grants for the runway improvements from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"This will be a huge boon to our area," he said.

A number of commercial carriers have expressed interest in providing flights from the airport in recent years, including Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways, according to airport officials.

Alaska Air Group subsidiary Horizon Airlines is currently the only commercial carrier operating out of Sonoma County Airport. Commercial service returned to the airport in 2007. United Airlines subsidiary United Express discontinued 15 years of service in 2001.

Regional leaders in business and tourism have speculated that an expanded list of destinations could be a significant economic boost, particularly for eastbound destinations such as Denver and Salt Late City.

"If we have an airport here that serves eastbound traffic, we will clearly put Sonoma County on the map in the business community," said Jonathan Coe, president and chief executive of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.

He noted that companies such as Medtronic and Agilent Technologies have large units in Sonoma County and are often users of eastbound flights from hubs like San Francisco or Oakland.

Ken Fischang, chief executive of Sonoma County Tourism, said that visitors arriving via Sonoma County Airport add around $1.5 billion to the county's economy and generate around $95 million in taxes. A total of around 7.5 million people visit the county every year, he said.

"If you divide that by 365, that equals a community the size of Windsor here every day," he said. Windsor had nearly 26,000 residents in the 2010 Census.