Friday, April 22, 2011

Airport funding remains a challenge

Airport Authority and commissioners seek more information

Express Staff Writer

Airport planners ended a meeting Tuesday without coming to any conclusions about how to fund a replacement airport with a total cost estimate of $327 million, telling consultants that they still need more information.

During a public workshop in Hailey, Friedman Memorial Airport Authority members and Blaine County commissioners focused on finding a funding strategy that would work for either of the sites being studied in the county and on prioritizing ways to reduce the total amount of sponsor, or local, costs without losing future revenue sources.

Initial feedback from the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority's financial consultants estimates the sponsor cost at between $35 million and $40 million. The limited revenue from existing airport operations at Friedman has forced the Airport Authority to look elsewhere for funding sources, with one option being a general obligation bond in the form of a property tax.

Tuesday night's workshop was the first joint effort by leaders to explore options besides a public tax.

"How can we build an airport that meets the needs of travelers in the region, is responsibly funded at the local level and still allows for a healthy revenue stream in the future?" asked Airport Authority Chair Tom Bowman.

The Airport Authority's project manager, Scott Carey of Jviation, explained a variety of methods that could be used to either eliminate costs altogether or lower them significantly. Any cost-cutting, he explained, must be weighed against future revenue that would be generated by airport facilities.

First, Carey explained, the Airport Authority could decide not to construct certain facilities that are currently included in cost estimates for the replacement airport, such as T-hangars and box hangars. Allowing other parties to construct hangars could save $15 million to $20 million in local construction costs, but would also give up hangar lease payments as a source of future revenue.

"Again, you need to look at not only what you save now, but what you might lose later," Carey cautioned. "It's a difficult balance to find."

The inclusion of hangar construction costs is one reason the Sun Valley replacement airport construction estimate is nearly double the amount spent at other, recently built airports where hangars were not built with local money.

Other options discussed Tuesday were delaying construction of non-critical facilities at the airport until land at the current airport is sold and using materials from the current site.

The gathered leaders concluded the workshop by asking financial consultants for more information about the operating costs and revenues expected at a replacement airport. With that information, they said, they expect to have a clearer picture of what they can cut from the project.

The Airport Authority is pursuing a new regional airport because the Federal Aviation Administration has deemed Friedman Memorial too small to meet safety regulations over the long term. The leading site is in southern Blaine County along state Highway 75.

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