Wednesday, September 14, 2011

FAA: Airport process ‘suspended, not abandoned’

Q&A with Federal Aviation Administration official Donna Taylor


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Courtesy photo Donna Taylor

The process to replace Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey suffered a serious setback last month when the Federal Aviation Administration announced the suspension of a long-anticipated report that would define the next steps. This week, a senior FAA official sat down with the Idaho Mountain Express to explain what this means for the community.

In an Aug. 22 letter to airport Manager Rick Baird, FAA Northwest Mountain Region Manager Donna Taylor stated 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." Before appearing at a public meeting Tuesday evening at the Wood River Middle School in Hailey, Taylor met with an Express reporter to answer specific questions as to what this means and what's next for the airport.

IME: Why, specifically, did the FAA suspend the process of the draft EIS?

DT: It came down to concerns about affordability. When we started the EIS process, we had 17 or 18 sites and planning-level cost estimates. As we began drilling in on the finalist sites, we wanted to make sure that we had affordable alternatives and that there were not unknown factors at the finalist sites. So we did a 35 percent engineering design estimate on it, and that's when we came up with costs ahead of what we expected.

When we started the EIS, the sage grouse was a species of concern. Over the course of our study, sage grouse became a much bigger issue environmentally. Its status actually changed from a species of concern to "status warranted but precluded." In other words, its status as an endangered species was warranted. That's a significant change in the amount of protection the animal's habitat would get. As it turned out, the habitat at site 10A [in southern Blaine County] is premium habitat for specific biological reasons. We could see that perusing that would further exacerbate the affordability problem.

IME: Does this mean that sites 10A and 12 will no longer be considered?

DT: Absolutely not. There are no alternatives that have been taken off the table. This is a suspension, not a termination. It's one thing to come up with a solution, but it's another to come up with a solution that everyone can afford. We have an important question, and we need to resolve it. It's suspended, not abandoned.

IME: Will the FAA release the studies and reports done so far?

DT: No. An environmental impact statement examines 21 distinct environmental impact areas. It wouldn't be terribly useful to release an incomplete environmental statement. Once we saw these affordability problems mounting, we really suspended work on completing our analysis. There's no document that's in any state to be released. We elected not to spend any more time and money to get it to the draft EIS stage until we knew we had an affordable alternative.

IME: What's next in the process? Can the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority and county leaders pursue approval for relocating Friedman to one of the other sites identified in the process? What is the path forward?

DT: The airport board has to engage the community in a conversation about affordability. Since we're suspending the EIS, I suspect the path forward will be to evaluate the costs associated with the two sites. There's no engineering economy brought to that design—you can always refine your design to reduce costs. This pause would be an opportunity to make sure that those very high costs that we have now can't be reduced by different choices.

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[The other sites] were eliminated because they didn't meet the aeronautical purpose and need. A commercial-service airport needs to achieve a degree of reliability. We might make choices about what we can afford, but that doesn't change fundamentally what a commercial-service airport requires. [Those sites] didn't achieve the level of reliability we were looking for.

At this point, I can't say exactly what the path forward will be. I'm here to explain to the community why we paused the EIS. There's no point in continuing until we know if we can afford what it is we're studying.

IME: Friedman Memorial Airport is currently operating under certain restrictions in order to achieve a level of safety the FAA deems acceptable. Can that continue long-term?

DT: There's an operating restriction at Friedman that assures that commercial service operations can be conducted safely. We don't waive the standards.

The FAA is in the business of building a national air transportation system, and we use our standards to say what that system needs to look like. The community made a decision that they didn't want to try and meet those standards at the existing site. So if the FAA's interest is in an airport that meets their standards, and the community didn't want to do that at the existing site, we jointly decided, OK, let's look elsewhere.

IME: Will the FAA now consider allowing Friedman to stay open long-term? Would it have to be enlarged and reconfigured to meet FAA standards?

DT: To tell you the honest-to-God truth, I'm not in any position to speculate about what the path forward might be. What I do know is that we got to a place with the EIS where we were faced with serious questions about affordability. So what we're doing is stepping back from the EIS for the moment to allow the community time to deal with the question of affordability. It would be way premature to speculate about what alternatives we might be looking at.

IME: With government cutbacks a reality, what could the FAA contribute toward a new airport to serve Blaine County?

DT: Just like I can't speculate about the alternatives, I'd be hard-pressed to speculate about the FAA's share. The law that gives us our grant program establishes the maximum federal share—95 percent of eligible projects. But that's a maximum federal share. We're generally 50 percent or less.

IME: How much has been spent already?

DT: It's approximately $6 million.

IME: How committed is the FAA to helping Blaine County maintain safe, reliable commercial air service?

DT: From what we've learned from the community over long years of conversations, commercial air service is enormously important to this community. That's the business the FAA is in, so it's very important to us.

It's hard to imagine a more challenging circumstance in which to try and site an airport that really meets the aeronautical needs of the community. The reason people want to come here is the skiing, the recreation—the mountains. None of those things make it easy to site an airport. We've literally been taking a hard look at Hailey for 30 years. If it had been an easy matter, we would have had it done a long time ago. It's about as complicated a situation as you can imagine to site a new airport or even improve your existing airport.

IME: What will you tell the airport authority tonight [Sept. 13]?

DT: The FAA remains very interested in getting standard airport facilities and improving the reliability of air service to the community. We're a lot smarter for having done the amount of analysis that we have, and we want to make sure that we both have a way forward.

(For coverage of the Tuesday meeting, see the Friday, Sept. 16, edition of the Idaho Mountain Express.)




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