Members of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority have continued over the past two weeks to move ahead with planning for a replacement airport even as questions linger about both its cost and whether it will produce enough revenue to support itself.
Airport Authority members are working with consultants to address higher-than-expected construction cost estimates (the most recent was $327 million), funding challenges posed by the high estimated construction cost and revenue projections for the replacement airport that are proving difficult to nail down in the current economic climate.
Recently, Airport Authority members got their first glimpse of early revenue projections for a replacement airport at the preferred site known as 10A, in Blaine County just north of the Lincoln County line, east of state Highway 75.
During an Airport Authority meeting on May 4, two consultants, Scott Carey and Kevin McPeak, went to great lengths to remind authority members that their financial projections were in draft form and conservative. Still, several attendees at the meeting called the numbers too optimistic. They based their skepticism on the high estimated construction costs of a new airport, the cautious mood in the general aviation community about entering into hangar leases and the uncertainty about future growth in commercial passenger numbers.
In the consultants' models, commercial passenger traffic will see a relatively flat growth rate between 2011 and 2019 while the existing airport continues operating, hovering between 55,000 and 58,000 passengers per year. That is expected to change in 2020 (the expected opening date for a replacement airport), when projections show a 25 percent jump in passenger numbers, followed by a 25 percent jump again in 2021. A 25 percent jump in the year 2020 would amount to about 14,500 more passengers compared to 2019. That scenario has the total number of commercial passengers doubling over the first three years at a replacement airport, from roughly 58,000 per year to roughly 110,000 per year.
Those projections have come under fire for relying on an old study completed when the economy was stronger and containing many inaccurate forecasts, including Blaine County's population and its growth rate, employment statistics and construction volume. One such forecast from the study called for 70,000 commercial passengers at Friedman in 2010. Actual passenger traffic last year was about 55,000.
In an interview, Charles Conn, Ketchum's airport liaison, expressed concern that accuracy is falling victim to expediency in the planning process.
"The consultants know that the initial study on commercial air service has been proved wrong, so they did the appropriate thing and adjusted their base number to 55,000 for these recent forecasts," he said. "However, their projections about passenger growth beginning in 2020 have not been adjusted, and continue to reflect the same data found in the flawed initial study."
Conn alleges other inaccuracies elsewhere in the planning process. An opinion piece in the May 10 edition of the Idaho Mountain Express, co-authored by Airport Authority Chair Tom Bowman and Vice-Chair Martha Burke, touted the economic benefits of a replacement airport. Conn called the employment projections in the piece "naked boosterism."
"They know very well that those estimates are dated and rely on huge increases in airport passenger traffic, a forecast even their own consultants don't believe," he said. "What local citizens need is a sober and detailed analysis of alternatives, with public input, not one-sided and misleading pronouncements."
In an interview, Burke accepted Conn's skepticism but asked for more than that.
"Charles has been a longtime participant in the planning process, and has offered plenty of opinions and questions about it," she said. "But, he hasn't yet provided any specific information to back it up. If he has figures that show ours to be wrong, he needs to share them with us."
Local airport leaders will continue to review cost, funding and revenue models in anticipation of the FAA draft environmental impact statement, which is due to be released later this month. That report is expected to provide the authority with many answers it currently doesn't have, including which of the potential sites is preferred by the FAA.
The FAA—which will ultimately determine where a new airport should go and could provide most of the funding—has determined that Friedman Memorial does not meet federal safety and configuration standards. That, coupled with desires among some public officials to decrease the rate of weather-related diversions to Twin Falls, prompted the ongoing effort to relocate the facility.