Friday, September 30, 2011

In airport debate, more questions, few answers

Next meeting set for Oct. 4


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Friedman Memorial Airport Manager Rick Baird discusses the options for retaining commercial air service during a special meeting of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority at the Sun Valley Inn on Tuesday. “An ideal solution may not exist,” he said. Photo by Willy Cook

Community members and stakeholders failed to approach resolution on any of the issues surrounding the replacement airport process during a Tuesday night special meeting of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority, including even that of deciding on the basic need for a local airport.

"I guess if anything came out of this meeting, it's more questions," said Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall, one of about 75 participants to weigh in during the meeting.

Friedman Memorial Airport Authority Chair Tom Bowman said the meeting was meant to gather public opinion on the direction that the process of bringing Friedman Memorial Airport into compliance with Federal Aviation Administration standards for most regional jets should take.

Earlier this month, FAA spokeswoman Donna Taylor said the agency needs more community input before putting more money into studying the prospect of a $300 million replacement airport.

However, some participants questioned the need for any public airport in the valley. Len Harlig, former Blaine County commissioner and former Airport Authority member, said the dropping demand for flights to Sun Valley could continue.

Since 2001, the number of passengers using Friedman Memorial Airport has dropped from nearly 50,000 to roughly 30,000 per year, Harlig said.

"I think [air service] is important, but I think the numbers are telling us something none of us want to hear," he said.

Harlig said in a later interview that his remark was meant to suggest that investment in an airport needs to be based on statistics rather than personal perspectives.

Several north valley residents disagreed with Harlig, saying commercial air traffic directly into Sun Valley is vital for business development, real estate sales and even the resort's existence.

"Air service, for the resort's continuing ability to exist and certainly for any expansion, is critical," said Wally Huffman, director of resorts and resort development for Sun Valley Co.

Huffman declined to definitively support either an expanded airport or a replacement, instead saying that if a replacement airport is built farther south of Hailey, Sun Valley Co. would "make it work."

"A replacement airport would be a lot better than no airport," he said.

One major benefit to the replacement airports is that they have reliability similar to the Boise airport, according to Scott Cary, an aviation consultant with Portland, Ore.-based Jviation.

A replacement airport south of the existing field could cut down on the number of flights diverted from Friedman to Boise or Twin Falls. Cary said any replacement airport would have to be far from the region's commercial center and would be more expensive to build than expanding Friedman.

Expanding the airport at its current site may seem to be a realistic alternative, but airport Manager Rick Baird said any plans to increase the size of the airport outside its current footprint have been met with community resistance since the development of the 1994 Friedman Memorial Airport Master Plan.

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The document states that any proposal to accommodate increasing demand for flights should focus on a replacement airport, not current site expansion.

"The question tonight seems to be, should the policy of no expansion outside the footprint of the Hailey airport remain in place?" Baird said.

Yes, argued many Hailey residents present at the Tuesday meeting. Victor Thomas, a Hailey resident and outspoken opponent of an expanded airport, said his opposition is rooted in quality-of-life concerns.

"I have loud jets [overhead] every morning at 6 a.m., waking up me and hundreds of [other] people," he said. "Why are we asking the people in this valley again if they want this? We've already said over the past 20 years, 'No, we don't want it.'"

Cary noted that the first option for expansion, shifting the runway 1,800 feet to the south, might not provide a wide enough space for all regional jets without further modifications to the airport's infrastructure.

"You'd be looking at trying to trim the front of the hangars and talking the FAA into keeping the highway," he warned.

Property owners in the Chantrelle subdivision on the north side of Bellevue vehemently opposed the second option, which would shift the runway south by more than a mile and realign it slightly to the west.

"That [option] where the runway is pointing right at my house needs to be eliminated," said Sue Livingston of Bellevue, adding that her property values would plummet and the enlargement would harm wildlife as well.

"It's a beautiful riparian area that you're really going to screw up with a bunch of loud planes," she said.

Other options, such as constructing light rail, creating a locally owned airline to service the region and creating a high-end shuttle service from Boise, were supported by a few but eventually rejected as impractical.

Cary estimated the cost of a light-rail system to Twin Falls or Boise at $20 million to $100 million per mile. This option would also require restarting the entire process of developing an environmental impact statement, he said.

In addition, he added that no locally owned airline has survived long-term. While a shuttle system could work, the current airport would need to stay open to private planes, meaning Hailey residents who had hoped the airport was on its way out would be disappointed.

Huffman said it is unlikely a solution would satisfy everyone, no matter what it was. Whatever it is, though, he urged the Airport Authority to develop it quickly.

"We cannot go along for another seven years studying the solution," he said. "[Any] solution is better than no solution."

The Airport Authority will discuss the input that it received at its next meeting, on Tuesday, Oct. 4, at 5:30 p.m. at the Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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