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The FAA awarded Harlingen’s Valley International Airport a $4.5 million grant for a new control tower. These renderings show the airport’s concept for the planned tower. (Courtesy photo)

HARLINGEN — Valley International Airport is just days away from opening the longest runway south of Austin following a $32 million project that’s the airport’s biggest in about 30 years.

After about five years of planning and 18 months of construction, officials are set to open the 9,400-foot landing strip next week, Marv Esterly, the airport’s aviation director, said Tuesday.

“It definitely sets us apart from other airports in the Rio Grande Valley,” he said in an interview. “Every improvement we make is a win for the area.”

The expanded runway marks the completion of the airport’s biggest project in about 30 years, Bryan Wren, the airport’s assistant aviation director, said.

The runway’s extension comes as officials launch a grant-funded $20 million project to build an air traffic control tower.

“Every improvement is made to improve services and operations at Valley International Airport,” Esterly said.

As part of the project turning the airport’s runway into the longest south of Austin and Houston, officials tapped Federal Aviation Administration grants to expand the landing strip from 8,300 feet t0 9,400 feet, Esterly said.

The runway’s extension is expected to draw more and bigger cargo jets to the airport.

“It’s more efficient for them to operate here,” Esterly said. “This will be a smarter option as cargo companies consider operating in the Rio Grande Valley. As we continue to grow, there’s going to be a need for additional cargo operations. We want to be ready for that.”

In 2019, officials began planning the project, aiming to draw more cargo jets.

“It was the performance characteristics of the large-body cargo jets that drove the extension,” Esterly said. “The longer the runway, they can load more weight onto the aircraft.”

Before officials undertook the project, cargo jets were operating at 48% of their maximum take-off weight, he said.

A taxi passes the front of Valley International Airport on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, in Harlingen. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

On the longer runway, he said, jets flying for such companies as FedEx will be operating at 75% of their take-off weight.

As part of the project, two upgraded approaches, known as instrument landing systems, will help cut aircraft approach minimums in half, Esterly said.

“These are the newest and greatest instrument technology systems south of Dallas-Fort Worth,” he said.

The technology, part of a Category II system, allows pilots a much lower ceiling in which to approach for landing, helping guide them in poor visibility.

“It will give aircraft a better chance to get in during inclement weather, not delaying or canceling flights,” Esterly said.

As part of the project, officials are installing a $3 million fiber circuit, Wren said, adding, “at the moment, we’re the only airport in the nation with a 100% fiber circuit.”

“All navigational aids are on a fiber circuit,” he said. “Fiber is one of the most reliable systems known. In the event of a power outage, fiber will keep processing data back and forth — and it’s not susceptible to lightning damage. By being on a fiber circuit, that helps tie into the need for a state-of-the-art control tower.”

After years of planning, officials have competed work on the air traffic control tower’s design, Wren said.

Next month, he said, they’re planning to go out for construction bids.

Amid growing air traffic, officials are building a 120-foot air control tower, expected to open in about two years.

The new tower will replace the airport’s out-dated 65-foot tower built in 1971.