Friday, January 28, 2005

Airport siting process is flawed

The citizens airport site selection committee convened this week in a courthouse packed with concerned citizens. The meeting could only be described as excruciatingly surreal.

Airport site consultants conducted the meeting. Their agenda called for discussion of the social and economic aspects of the apparent finalist sites, but precious little discussion occurred.

During the scant 15-minute public comment period in the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, several members of the audience raised pointed and relevant questions. To which there were polite thank-yous and nods, but no responses. Notes were scribbled furiously, but there was no discussion, no debate. It was as though their concerns went into one of the black holes in space—never to return.

The same thing occurred when advisory committee members raised questions over a period of about 30 minutes. More scribbling and nodding from the consultants.

Now we are told the sites will be winnowed to one in the next meeting in February. That's astonishing given that nothing but safety and design matters have received much attention to date.

Fairfield resident Judith Freeman described the problem when she said that almost all but two of the original 16 sites had been eliminated before any social impacts were considered.

The same is true of economic considerations. Eighty percent of the sites have been eliminated before hard economic questions could be asked. Worse, the consultants—or the Blaine County Airport Authority, which is driving the study—seem to have eliminated the question of any negative impacts to the valley's economy from a too-distant airport.

The prevailing attitude seems to be "if we build it, they will come"—right out of the classic baseball movie "The Field of Dreams."

But airlines aren't baseball teams. Key questions that must be answered include the following: Which sites would carriers even consider servicing? And to and from which markets? What are the real infrastructure costs to the counties—whether Camas, Blaine or Lincoln—of an airport estimated to cost $100 million?

Like it or not, tourism still drives the valley's economics, and tourism hinges on an airport that fosters its growth. Get this wrong and we risk becoming like the hundreds of scrappy, dying towns across the country bypassed by interstate highways.

The airport site consultants seem hell-bent on slimming the list of sites to one and then asking members of the public what they think.

It should be the other way around.

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