The Federal Aviation Administration suspended the draft environmental impact statement for a replacement airport earlier this week, and many questions—mainly 'What now?'—remain unanswered.
One thing is for certain, agree aviation experts—it's back to the drawing board when it comes to considering improving air service in the Wood River Valley.
Why the suspension?
The FAA announced suspension of the draft EIS on Monday in a letter to Friedman Memorial Airport Manager Rick Baird.
Donna Taylor, manager of the Airports Division of the FAA's Northwest Mountain Region office in Seattle, stated in the letter that further work on an environmental impact statement for the project had been "indefinitely" suspended.
Taylor stated that the suspension was due to "increased anticipated costs of the project and potential impacts to wildlife."
"I've seen this coming for a long time," said County Commissioner and Airport Authority board member Larry Schoen.
Though Schoen has been outspoken against the increasing cost estimates of a replacement airport for some time, he said he also foresaw the wildlife issues.
A news release from the FAA on Tuesday stated that the impacts of a replacement airport on sage grouse habitat were an "important" issue, and that compensating for the habitat lost to replacement facilities would be "problematic."
"Concerns have been raised that impacting large tracts of intact habitat may push the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] toward listing the species as endangered," the release stated.
Sage grouse were listed as a candidate species for federal protection last year, due in part to habitat fragmentation, a fact pointed out in an April letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the FAA.
"The development of an airport ... will contribute to one of the primary listing factors (i.e., fragmentation) for this species," the letter reads, adding that the service recommends preserving all existing sagebrush-steppe habitat in the region.
In addition to wildlife issues, the FAA states that the costs of a replacement airport have skyrocketed since the EIS process began in 2006. The original estimate for a replacement airport was just over $107,345,000. The FAA's release stated that the current estimates have leapt to $285 million for Site 10A near the Lincoln-Blaine county border and $314 million for Site 12 near the Blaine-Camas county border, due to inflation and better analysis.
Neither site has technically been eliminated, the FAA said, but others involved in the replacement airport process say they believe neither site is a reasonable option.
Relocation or expansion?
County Commissioner and Airport Authority board member Tom Bowman said Thursday that all 16 sites originally identified in a 2006 Site Selection and Feasibility Study would have to be revisited.
"All alternatives need to be examined," he said, adding that the community might need to revisit the concept of what it really needs in a new or expanded airport. "Once [that] is modified, we'll see which of the sites, including the Friedman site, would be suitable for further investigation."
Baird was hesitant to give an opinion, but said the decision to relocate the airport rather than expand the existing one was based on the idea that there would be a viable site elsewhere.
"If there's not, and the FAA did not say there is not, the community has to go back and re-examine those decision-making paradigms that got us here in the first place," Baird said.
Baird said there are three separate options for expansion on the current site: to the south, which would require land acquisition from the Flying Hat Ranch; to the east, which would require relocating state Highway 75 and the Wood River Trails bike path; and to the west, pushing the airport area into the Airport West industrial area.
Originally, the expansion plans called for an eventual facility that was the same size as a proposed replacement airport. Baird said expansion plans could probably be modified, as the original plans called for room for future hangar expansion and more than one fixed-base operator, or service center for jets and airplanes.
"Maybe we can find a way to live without [those things]," he said.
The city of Hailey has repeatedly stated that it is opposed to the airport staying where it is, even amending the joint powers agreement that governs who has decision-making power over what aspects of the current airport to include a provision that ensures that the replacement airport goes in at another location.
City Attorney Ned William said that technically, expansion of the existing site would not be considered a replacement airport and therefore would not require an amended agreement. However, he said, the agreement was "premised on the idea that the airport would not be expanded."
Calls to Hailey City Council members and Airport Authority board members Don Kiern and Martha Burke to determine whether the city would consider even limited expansion at the existing site were not returned as of press time Thursday.
Expansion at the current site would be supported by the general aviation community, said Bill Dunn, vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
"The Airport Authority had attempted relocation a number of years ago, and it didn't happen," he said. "They've looked at all of these sites already. Instead of spending these tens of millions of dollars that are going nowhere, that money could be invested in enhancing the existing airport."
The proximity factor
Dunn said expanding the existing airport would also help the valley retain commercial air service.
"Let's be realistic," he said. "An airline provides service based on the number of people who want to get to that area. People go to airports that are close to where they want to end up. At the end of the day, if the airline is not filling their seats at a new airport, there's no guarantee they're going to keep service."
The majority of resort visitors, at least in winter, use air service to get to Sun Valley, said Jack Sibbach, spokesman for Sun Valley Co. According to Sibbach, 60 percent of resort guests flew into an area airport last winter. About half those flew on flights headed to Friedman Memorial Airport, while Boise and Twin Falls airports were the destinations for the rest.
In the summer, only 18 percent of resort guests fly into Friedman Memorial Airport, Sibbach said, but airline activity increases, meaning second-home owners and other tourists are still filling seats.
"Obviously, transportation is always an issue for us," he said.
He said he couldn't comment on what the resort would prefer to see in an airport, but said it is dedicated to preserving existing air service.
The draft EIS suspension does not affect the current letter of agreement that allows Friedman to retain commercial air service despite its not meeting certain design standards, the FAA stated in its news release. Plans to develop a new airport stemmed largely from determinations by the FAA that Friedman does not meet safety standards for handling certain types of larger aircraft. A waiver was granted under certain conditions, including one that an effort to establish a compliant facility be made.
However, Baird said that changes must be made, and soon, or the airlines that serve Sun Valley may withdraw service as they see profit losses and stop running the propeller planes that the airport can service.
"We can't see a major regional carrier that's purchasing aircraft that meets our existing standards," he said. "The deficiencies are still there, there's still a problem and we're still in a race to solve this."
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