A ceremonial groundbreaking for $8.5 million in runway and lighting improvements is held Tuesday at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — Officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport on Tuesday, donning hard hats and grabbing golden shovels in the rain to celebrate the start of an $8.5 million, 312-day project.

Board Chairwoman Bettyann Sheats said the rain was perfect to illustrate that the project would make the airport safer in all weather.

Plans include adding new LED lights, bringing runway safety areas up to Federal Aviation Administration standards, repaving runways and grooving pavement for better drainage.

“When it’s grooved, that rain goes off to the side,” airport Director Rick Lanman said. “We’ve got airplanes landing at 120 to 140 mph, the more contact with the tire, the better, and that’s what it’s really all about.”

The airport is one of the busiest in Maine with an average 140 takeoffs and landings daily.

Sheats said Elite Airways, UPS and LifeFlight all regularly fly in and out.

“Recent estimates suggest that we bring in about $25 million (annually) worth of revenue to the state through this airport,” she said.

Project Manager Suzanne Sheppard from Hoyle, Tanner & Associates of Yarmouth said her firm has been working with the airport since the 1970s.

“The construction phasing for this project was key,” she said. “Over the course of this 312-day project, we’ve impacted every pavement surface out there, that means coordination with airport users was very important.”

It’s anticipated that the runways will close for four to five days in early May for some of the work, Lanman said.

Monday was the project’s first official day. It’s expected to wrap in October 2020.

Since 2016, officials have invested $11 million in infrastructure at the airport, including this latest project, with $9.9 million funded by the FAA and the rest split among Maine, Auburn and Lewiston.

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