Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Let's have a real debate on airport site

Last week's meeting of the Airport Authority was instructive in two ways. One, it demonstrated how quickly an important process can degenerate into big egos battling in a thumb war. Two, it revealed how some participating in the debate are hell-bent on defining the issue as some sort of epic struggle between the "northerners" and the "southerners"—class warfare in the Wood River Valley. The divide just isn't there.

This airport decision is likely the most important one the valley will face—at least in terms of our lives and livelihoods here. Valley leaders should be operating with clear heads, answering hard questions with facts, and proceeding logically and conscientiously.

The Airport Authority Board—Hailey City Councilwoman Martha Burke, Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant, County Commissioner Tom Bowman, Ron Fairfax and Len Harlig—last week fired back at critics and demanded that they document their allegations about the site selection process. Critics have questioned whether the Federal Aviation Administration would waive current restrictions on Friedman Memorial Airport, and if airlines might reduce or eliminate service here if a new airport is located in a place that is economically not viable.

These are reasonable questions that need to be answered, but it is the job of the Authority to get those answers. To throw the questions back at the critics on the Citizen Site Selection Committee defeats the purpose of the committee. Its members are there to speak for the public, to raise questions and concerns—to create debate. The Authority and the airport consultants should engage in that debate and find answers to the questions.

The Authority needs to get the airlines—SkyWest and Horizon—to the table and find out what their economic parameters are. It's an unregulated business; they don't have to fly here. And they won't if they see a losing business model before them. What do they see?

The Authority also needs to pin down the FAA. Will it shut down Friedman if nothing is done? Will it waive some restrictions, and if so, which ones? Airport manager Rick Baird has said the FAA considers Friedman unsafe for larger planes landing there. Does that mean current size aircraft are okay? Leaving bigger planes off the table, would modifications to Friedman address the compliance issues and be cost effective?

Authority vice chairwoman Susan McBryant found the suggestion that the Authority or its consultants meet with Sun Valley Company "appalling." She said there are 25 interest groups at the table and that "north county" representatives are too domineering at meetings.

In fact, it's this view of Hailey's top elected official that's appalling.

In any wide-ranging economic decision, it's always wise to consult business leaders. And, yes, the size of their business should affect the weight of their opinion. Marketron and Power Engineers employ a lot of people—maybe they should be included in discussions, too. But the Authority cannot deny the jobs and, more importantly, the huge revenue stream from tourists and second-home owners that the area's largest business, Sun Valley Company, brings into the valley—north and south.

All businesses are not created equal, especially when it comes to valley-wide economics.

What's more, it's time to drop the worn out view that the valley is divided by the rich in the north and the less rich in the south. Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley are forever bound together by the highway, economy, and valley geography—all part of the web of culture and community.

What now?

The site selection committee and the consultants hope to have narrowed the sites to three in their Feb. 26 meeting based on safety, weather and topographic considerations—concerns the public has little expertise in. Social and economic factors, as they affect the rankings, will likely come in March.

Now, let the hard questions get answered:

What is the FAA really demanding of Friedman? Can we afford modifications, or are they even cost effective?

If we have to build a new airport, how much will it cost, and who will pay what share of that cost?

How big are the associated costs of infrastructure, and who will pick up that tab? The county, private investors, businesses, air travelers?

What commitments are the airlines willing to make for each site?

Are the social impacts of each site tolerable?

If the FAA is footing a high percentage of the bill for a new airport, per se, can and will it decide to do whatever it wants, despite all of the recommendations in the world?

It's time for answers. Then, let a real debate begin—not this fuzzy, turn the other cheek, non-debate that the consultants and Citizen Site Selection Committee are mired in.

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