Landing a plane in Santa Barbara may soon be safer thanks to a large federal grant.

The Santa Barbara Municipal Airport received $8.7 million from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on April 30. This is the second of four grants that will fund several safety improvements at the airport. The proposed $37 million project would shift the current runway 800 feet west and add safety overruns at each end of the runway. The overruns would be 1,000-foot-long strips of banked pavement that would slow airplanes that miss the runway. The current safety areas are only 300 feet long.

“Some work could start as early as summer or fall of this year,” Assistant Airport Director Hazel Johns said. “The construction will be phased because there are so many elements involved and, of course, we want to keep the airport open.”

The airport received $10 million from the FAA last year and is expecting two more grants within the next two fiscal years. Johns said she optimistically expects the project to be completed by the end of 2006 or early 2007.

“We’ve received just about all of the necessary permits,” Johns said. “Right now we have about 60 percent of the design completed.”

In June 2002, the city of Goleta and Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper filed a lawsuit against the proposal, citing environmental concerns. In order to accommodate the expansion, 13 acres of Goleta Slough would be destroyed, and Tecolotito and Los Carneros creeks would be rerouted.

According to the lawsuit, the expansion violates the California Coastal Act, a state law protecting wetlands. The lawsuit has not yet been resolved.

“Maybe they’re getting the money in anticipation that they’ll win,” ChannelKeeper staff member Leigh Ann Grabowsky said. “We’re still waiting for the judge to make a decision.”

The Goleta City Council unanimously opposed the project even though the California Coastal Commission voted 7-3 in favor of the expansion.

The expansion plan includes a provision to enhance 35 acres of seasonal wetlands and tidal areas in another part of the slough to offset any negative environmental effects. The 430-acre slough has seven major creeks flowing through it and is home to 279 bird species.