Friday, October 28, 2011

Airport camps must come together

Local opinion is starkly polarized on what, if anything, should happen to ensure that the Sun Valley area has an airport nearby that can handle commercial jets.

The political gridlock that could result threatens the foundation of the area's economy. It's impossible to overstate the danger of doing nothing or doing something so slowly that it becomes the same as doing nothing.

A 2007 Idaho Transportation Department study found that commercial airline passengers spend $52 million in the area each year, with general aviation travelers adding another $3.6 million to the total. Even considering the weaker economy that has plagued the area since 2007, it's still stating the obvious to say that the area can't afford to do without the money spent by air passengers or to see it drop further.

Opinions to date fall into three camps.

The Get 'er Done Camp insists that Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey must be engineered and expanded to accommodate aviation's state-of-the art regional jets. This option could entail land and building condemnations, family dislocations and highway relocation, not to mention the expansion of airport impacts to a larger area.

The Not in My Backyard Camp insists that unless a new airport is built somewhere outside of the Wood River Valley, an option that the Federal Aviation Administration has suspended, nothing should be done. That would leave the airport to die on the vine as commercial airlines shift to aircraft that the airport can't accommodate well today.

The Don't Worry, Be Happy Camp dismisses both in-place expansion and relocation and would prefer that the valley simply develop convenient bus or van transportation to and from airports in Boise and Twin Falls. This option avoids all conflict or tough political decisions, apparently in the unsubstantiated belief that the area will adapt painlessly to the situation.

All of the camps are experiencing the stormy weather of disagreements over insufficient area marketing, airline seat subsidies and the reluctance of commercial airlines to get deeply involved in the airport's issues.

The prospect of not having an adequate airport is the greatest threat to the area's economic viability since silver markets went bust in the late 1880s and put local mining operations out of business.

That reality should unite, not divide the three camps and motivate leaders and residents to find a solution. Seen clearly, the reality should lead us to put pettiness and parochial rivalries aside.

No solution will be perfect, but not finding a solution simply is not an option.

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