Friday, August 8, 2008

Three sites make cut for new airport

More tough studies required before final pick

Express Staff Writer

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Three of 16 potential sites for a replacement airfield to Friedman Memorial Airport survived the first phase of an environmental impact study, with at least one of them certain to stir up a new controversy over its designation.

The three are:

● Site No. 4, north of U.S. Highway 20 and east of state Highway 75 in the so-called Bellevue Triangle.

● Site No. 12, along the north side of U.S. Highway 20 just inside the Blaine County line east of the town of Fairfield.

● Site No. 10-A, east of state Highway 75 and south of Timmerman Hill. This area originally was designed as Site 10 and the preferred location of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority. But during the EIS study, it was moved slightly south because of terrain obstructions.

Along with the sites announcement at the airport authority's Tuesday meeting, and then at two public meetings on Wednesday, Mark Perryman, president of the consulting firm Landrum & Brown, and Cayla Morgan, project manager for the Federal Aviation Administration, made another emphatic assertion:

Friedman airport cannot pass muster for continued use, regardless of any modifications, because of surrounding terrain that makes it virtually impossible for airliners to execute a "missed approach" during minimal weather conditions and go around for another landing attempt. To continue suggesting that Friedman can be maintained is a "non-starter," Perryman said. Morgan of the FAA agreed.

All three candidate sites face a second phase of rigorous examination. The first phase was to test the sites purely against aeronautical standards; that is, could state-of-the-art landing systems be installed at the locations and could airliners safely take off and land with adequate clearance of terrain?

The second phase, Perryman and Morgan explained, will cover environmental considerations.

The EIS study may not be completed for another year or more. Construction and opening of a new airport is targeted sometime after 2015.

However, fierce opposition to site No. 4 is bound to develop in the meantime. Residents of the Bellevue Triangle, as well as some environmentalists, mounted vehement opposition to an airport in that area when it was considered during the 2006 citizens' site selection committee hearings. The area has wetlands as well as ranch estates. The area was favored by north Wood River Valley business interests as being closer to the current airport, but their appeals were drowned out.

During the Wednesday morning public meeting, several in the audience questioned whether further study of site No. 4 would be a waste of time and money, since it could be eliminated on grounds that it is environmentally out of place. But both Perryman and Morgan explained that the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act requires that all potential sites be studied thoroughly. Shortcutting the process could invite lawsuits and delay the entire EIS study, they agreed.

In all, the consulting firm and its technical team studied 16 potential sites, including the modified 10-A site.

In spelling out findings of the study's first phase, Perryman said interviews with 1,000 travelers, executives of airlines serving Friedman and of airlines interested in operating from a larger airport found that:

· Air carriers are less interested in the distance of an airport from a population center as they are in whether it's the closest airport.

· Despite today's sagging economy, a new airport will be highly successful and will recapture passengers now "leaked" to Twin Falls and Boise. Landrum & Brown found "an inherent demand" of travelers to visit the Sun Valley area.

· A new generation of larger aircraft operating from a new field probably will reduce the number of flights but increase passenger volume.

· A larger airport complex would dramatically increase terminal area to 50 acres from Friedman terminal's current 8.7 acres, and areas for the fixed-base operator providing services and for general aviation to 75 acres from the current 13.5 acres.

· A new airport's proposed 8,500-foot runway with better electronic landing systems for aircraft would attract new airline service. Site No. 10-A would also have a crosswind runway of some 6,000 feet. Friedman's runway is 7,550 feet.

· A new airfield also would lead to nearby ancillary commercial development.

· No interest in a regional airport could be found among officials in Twin Falls.

Perryman also explained he would return in about 60 days and present a set of economic findings accumulated during the study.

As to financing a new facility, Morgan said at a minimum 50 percent of the costs would be provided through the multi-billion-dollar Airport and Airway Trust Fund, while additional millions would be available from sale of Friedman land purchased with FAA funds. A new airport is estimated to cost $100 million plus.

One of the major pitfalls facing valley air service is the possibility that SkyWest Airlines would retire the fleet of Embraer 120 Brasilia turboprop aircraft in favor of regional jets before a new airfield is built. In that event, only air service north and west of Hailey would be available, on Horizon Air, and not as frequent as SkyWest's schedule to Salt Lake City. Friedman is the only airport SkyWest serves with the Brasilia, other than its headquarters field in St. George, Utah, where a new jet-compatible field is being built.

Perryman, however, said SkyWest "would find a way" to continue service, perhaps by maintaining the turboprop fleet until a new airport opens.

To the question of whether the FAA would lift the waiver that now allows Friedman to handle larger aircraft beyond the field's design limits, Morgan said that "awful" eventuality would only occur if Friedman were physically unable to "sanitize" and shut down operations while larger aircraft take off and land as required by the waiver. The FAA is "concerned how long we can keep this (waiver) in place," she said.

Authority member Len Harlig asked what happens if none of the three candidate sites can pass tests facing them in Phase Two of the EIS. Though Perryman conceded developing a new airport "won't be easy," he was unwilling to concede that all sites would ultimately fail to be acceptable.

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