Friday, September 16, 2011

Worst game of 20 Questions

Listening to exchanges between the members of the Friedman Airport Authority and FAA Northwest Mountain Region Manager Donna Taylor this week was like listening to a game of 20 Questions.

When authority members asked Taylor what they could do to keep things moving in the quest to build a new airport, they might as well have been asking, "Is it bigger than a bread box?"

Like the person in the classic game who is thinking of an object that other players must guess, Taylor's answers were signposts to nowhere—except for one.

Question: Is it about how much money the Sun Valley area can pay to build a new airport? Her answer, repeated several times, was an enthusiastic yes.

New cost estimates put the price tag in the neighborhood of $300 million, more than three times higher than original estimates. The price tag includes no money for any damage airport development may cause to sage grouse populations at a location south of Timmerman Hill.

The sensitive birds seem to grow closer to getting on the nation's endangered species list every year. Even if the bird is not declared endangered, it's unknown how much money it would take to mitigate damage to the species by the airport. One thing is certain: It would be expensive.

The so-called "pause" in the airport relocation process that has spanned more than a decade is causing severe heartburn.

Regional air carriers are well on the way to phasing out prop jets and replacing them with bigger regional jets that Friedman airport is too small and constrained to handle on a regular basis.

So, the clock is ticking. Where will world-famous Sun Valley be if the airport question is not resolved?

The FAA still has money left in its planning grant for a new airport. That may help, but it's not clear how.

Taylor said she would love to offer bright lines to guide the community, but couldn't. She said if there were an easy solution it would have been found by now. She assured the community that the FAA was not backing out of the effort.

The FAA itself recently has been beset by uncertainty. The biggest was the August shutdown of the agency when Congress failed to extend funding as it bickered over the national debt ceiling.

It was ironic that the two-week shutdown cost the FAA $350 million in airline fees and taxes—enough to have built Sun Valley's new airport. It's fair to wonder if that irony will register with Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, Rep. Mike Simpson, and Rep. Jim Risch, who all had representatives at the meeting with Taylor.

A new airport is looking more and more like Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

It might be amusing if the situation weren't so serious.

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