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Business leaders and builders joined city, county and federal officials Wednesday to celebrate the imminent start of a $53.8 million project to lengthen the runways at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

"Is this a great day, huh?" County Supervisor Mike McGuire told a crowd gathered inside a cavernous hangar for the runway project's ceremonial groundbreaking.

Scheduled for completion in October 2014, the project will fulfill a plan hatched 15 years ago to make the county's only commercial airport safer — and potentially attract more air traffic.

"This is incredibly important for our area," said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. "This is big stuff."

McGuire joked that Thompson, whose district includes Santa Rosa, arrived with a $39.7 million check in his pocket, referring to the three Department of Transportation grants that Thompson announced Wednesday.

Another grant of about $3 million will come later this year, Airport Manager Jon Stout said, and the county's share of the runway project will be $5.2million to $5.8 million.

The balance of the funding is expected over the next two years, he said.

O.C. Jones & Sons Inc. of Berkeley was awarded a $22.7 million construction contract in June and will start work the week of Sept. 9, Stout said.

Environmental mitigation costs linked to the project amount to more than $20 million.

Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said it was Sonoma County's second most expensive project, behind the $60 million juvenile justice center opened at Los Guilicos in 2005.

The project was approved by at least six state and federal agencies and generated a stack of environmental documents 4feet thick, officials said.

The project will extend the airport's main runway from 5,115 feet to 6,000 feet and separate its north end from the secondary runway, which will be extended by 200 feet.

Eliminating the joined endpoint of the two runways is a safety improvement that qualified the project for federal funding.

Airport backers and local businesses hope the longer runways will enable the airport to attract major airlines offering flights east to air travel hubs including Denver, Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

The airport currently offers six Alaska Airlines flights a day in and out to Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Jonathan Coe, president and chief executive of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, told the crowd that local firms regularly send employees east via the Oakland and San Francisco airports.

Eastbound flights will benefit them and make the area more attractive to new business, he said. "We will (with expanded flights) clearly put Sonoma County on the map in the business world."

Kenneth Fischang, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, said that transportation facilities are "critical to our growth as a (tourist) destination."

The county attracts 7.5million visitors a year, adding almost $1.5 billion to the local economy, he said.

"The economic impact for our future in incredible," Fischang said, referring to the potential for boosting airport use.

Passenger traffic between January and July totaled 128,058 people, up almost 7 percent over the same period of last year, the airport reported.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who joined Congress in January, said he envisions riding a Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter train to the airport and catching a flight to work in Washington, D.C.