Friday, September 30, 2011

What the railroads taught

When the West was young, towns sprouted up around gold and silver strikes and near water and good farmland. Then came the railroads.

With them came the ability to ship and receive goods and materials easily. Economic prosperity arrived in towns on steel wheels. Competition, envy and anxiety surrounded the planning of new railroad routes because townsfolk knew that fortunes and livelihoods would ride on them.

It's not unusual even today to hear people in Western towns that are a dot on the landscape tell stories about how theirs was once a big town until the railroad laid tracks near their regional rivals instead.

Railroads today, though prosperous, don't confer prosperity as they once did. That power was usurped long ago by commercial air carriers and the airports that support them.

In the Sun Valley area, commercial air service and Friedman Memorial Airport support the recreation industry, companies that are here because of the high quality of life and modern-day air-commuters who work elsewhere but maintain permanent homes here.

With the Federal Aviation Administration's recent timeout on a process that was on track to provide the area with a new modern airport, the Sun Valley area finds itself on shaky ground.

After years of effort, study and expense, it still has only its present airport set in the narrow Wood River Valley and surrounded on all sides by development. That, plus plans for two new sites that could be headed for the shredder.

A few of the crowd of 160 people at this week's airport meeting wondered aloud if the area should quit worrying about building a new airport and embrace Twin Falls or Boise as Sun Valley's air hub and supplement it with luxury van and bus service to Sun Valley.

This alternative seems clear, ideal, easy and so alluring. It would eliminate noise or safety concerns for Hailey and Bellevue. It would have no wildlife conflicts and no funding problems. The valley could be left as an idyllic destination for those who come here on rubber wheels. Or, for the rich who can afford private planes.

Before anyone throws their arms around that dreamscape, they should remember the Western towns that shriveled when the railroad passed too far away. They need to remember that Union Pacific Railroad made Sun Valley. They need to re-read what's happened to Tamarack, Idaho's failed hope for a second major mountain resort. They need to acknowledge that Sun Valley's major competitors are closer than two hours to air service.

There are pivotal decision points in the lives of people and communities. What happens to the airport is one of them.

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