Friday, September 16, 2011

FAA: Rethink airport project

Airport officials are left uncertain about future

Express Staff Writer

Friedman Memorial Airport Manager Rick Baird and FAA representative Donna Taylor watch and listen to the discussion Tuesday. Photo by Willy Cook

It's back to the drawing board to find a solution to the Wood River Valley's air service problems.

During a Friedman Memorial Airport Authority board meeting Tuesday night, a representative from the Federal Aviation Administration told local elected officials that the agency's decision to suspend work on an environmental document for a proposed replacement airport was due to high estimated construction costs and environmental impacts. Donna Taylor, manager of the FAA's Northwest Mountain Region, provided little guidance on what to do next, though she told board members that the agency would remain a strong partner in working to ensure that commercial service to the region continues.

Commercial air traffic at the existing airport faces reliability issues due to the airport's mountainous location and stormy winter weather. Many winter flights are diverted to Twin Falls. In addition, due to its substandard runway size, it operates under constraints that are permitted by the FAA but may not be feasible indefinitely.

In 2006, the airport board chose construction of a new facility at so-called Site 10A, about 17 miles south of Bellevue along state Highway 75, as the proposed solution, and the FAA initiated an environmental impact study to assess it.

Since then, cost estimates for a new airport have soared from $120 million to $327 million, perhaps half of which would be federally funded.

In a letter dated Aug. 22, Taylor informed the board that work on the draft EIS had been suspended. The decision came as a surprise to local elected officials, who asked for a more detailed explanation.

For two hours at the Wood River Middle School in Hailey, Taylor took questions from board members and from an audience of about 60 people that was a virtual who's who of local politicians and business leaders. In interviews following Taylor's presentation, board members generally expressed satisfaction that their questions had been answered but uncertainty as to what direction to take next.

Taylor said a decision to suspend work on the draft EIS was due to skyrocketing construction cost estimates and a looming conflict with the habitat needs of sage grouse at the proposed site.

"It didn't seem prudent to me at that time to continue headlong into the study ... to pursue projects that neither side of the funding equation could afford," she said.

Taylor said an important factor was a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to change the sage grouse's status under the Endangered Species Act from a "species of concern" to a "warranted but precluded" candidate for listing. Site 10A is deemed prime sage grouse habitat.

"That significantly upped the ante in terms of the burden on the FAA to evaluate alternative projects," Taylor said.

Board member and County Commissioner Larry Schoen asked Taylor if the suspension means the FAA wants to hear from the local community as to where it wants to go from here.

"Absolutely," Taylor said.

In response to another questioner, Taylor said she would "feel a little presumptuous in speculating on what your next steps would be—what your community conversation would be."

Board Chair and County Commissioner Tom Bowman told the audience that a public meeting will be held in about two weeks (now tentatively set for Tuesday, Sept. 27) to initiate a discussion led by airport stakeholders on what directions to consider.

Asked what direction that might be, Bowman said, "Beyond that meeting in two weeks, we just don't know. This will be a very dynamic process in the next few months."

Taylor said that from the FAA's perspective, at this point "there are no alternatives that are off the table."

"If it turns out that these alternatives are affordable ... we will move on getting this EIS complete," she said.

Asked whether the FAA could release data so far collected for the EIS, Taylor said doing so would involve more expense and could violate a legal requirement that the agency remain "at arm's length" with local partners.

Friedman is permitted by the FAA to operate under certain constraints—such as restricting use of the runway by other planes when large commercial planes are landing—to mitigate safety issues created by its substandard size. Taylor said there is no guarantee that that arrangement will remain in effect until a permanent solution is found, but said, "I haven't seen anything show up that would upset that situation."

However, she said the FAA does not want to invest money on operational improvements.

In an interview following the meeting, board member Susan McBryant said Taylor's statements gave her confidence that as long as the board is diligently pursuing a permanent fix, the FAA is "not going to swoop in and shut us down."

Taylor told a questioner that even though private jets use the airport, it is "not even close" to meeting FAA standards for commercial use by the small jets that are increasingly being flown by regional airlines. According to the airport's website, SkyWest Airlines may replace its current turboprop Brasilia planes with regional jets within the next few years.

The website states that the FAA will not allow Friedman's out-of-compliance condition on a permanent basis.

However, in an interview, Schoen said he did not see the FAA as demanding that Friedman be enlarged or moved, but only pointing out that the airport could lose commercial air service if it does not become compliant to handle regional jets.

"They have never told us that you have to shut the airport," he said. "They're saying, 'You're going to lose control over your own destiny.'

"The airport is not moving because it's unsafe. It is a safe airport. But in order to be safe, it's operating in such a way that it's unreliable. That's why it's advised that we move it."

Also in an interview, Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi said the EIS suspension could prompt both advocates and opponents of a new airport to discuss the issues with a fresh perspective.

"Now we have an opportunity perhaps to bring everybody together," he said. "I hope we can capitalize on that, and I hope there's some leadership to do that."

Greg Moore:

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