Friday, January 20, 2012

County commissioners debate airport relocation

How much money should be put into existing site?


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Debate over relocating Friedman Memorial Airport, shown above, heated up on Tuesday as county commissioners said moving the airport is the long-term goal, but improvements must be made at the current site as well. Photo by Mountain Express

A Blaine County commissioners' meeting on the airport planning process Tuesday turned into a debate on whether improvements to the existing site could be a permanent fix or only temporary pending relocation to a site south of Bellevue.

The commissioners met with the intent of forming a unified position on relocating Friedman Memorial Airport or making improvements at the current site. The discussions will continue at subsequent meetings.

While the commissioners agreed that any plans for the airport should improve safety standards and reliability, they disagreed as to whether the airport needs to be moved to meet those goals.

"The existing location is inappropriate for transportation infrastructure for the next 100 years," said Commissioner Tom Bowman. "We have two choices. We can have it where it is, more or less, or we can replace it."

But Commissioners Angenie McCleary and Larry Schoen balked at unequivocally stating they would seek to relocate the airport, especially as funding could pose problems in the future.

"If 20 years ago, the county was setting aside $2 million a year [for the airport], we'd be having a different conversation," Schoen said. "But we haven't done that."

Estimates for building a replacement airport have reached upwards of $300 million in the latest predictions, leading to the Federal Aviation Administration's suspending its studies on replacement sites due to concerns over the community's ability to pay for a new facility.

"Relocation either to site 10A [south of Bellevue] or 12 [near the Camas County line] is not feasible at this time," Schoen said. "The community is simply not prepared to undertake a project of this magnitude."

But Bowman said that even if the county is not prepared to fund a replacement airport currently, it might be in the future—and the time to start planning is now.

"I don't see a replacement airport happening in 10 years, maybe 15, maybe 20, certainly in 50," he said, adding that the county should acknowledge that possibility and begin planning now.

McCleary said she agreed with the idea that the airport may eventually need to be relocated, but that she placed a higher priority on issues such as safety and reliability, rather than relocation for the sake of relocation.

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"Likely the long-term solution is a relocated airport, and we need to be planning for that now," she said. "For me, a replacement airport south of Bellevue might be an outcome. That might be our best option, but the guiding principle for me isn't moving the airport south."

Bowman eventually agreed, saying that he'd prefer to see an end to head-to-head operations at Friedman—where planes approach from the south as well as take off toward the south—and increase reliability.

However, he bristled at McCleary's insinuation that he had safety concerns with head-to-head operations.

"The way we do it, it's safe—there is no question of safety," he said. "I don't want to have any implication that current operations are unsafe and that's why we're doing this."

He stated that ending head-to-head operations would increase efficiency, with the added benefit of improving safety.

Some members of the public stated that they would rather see the county invest in a relocated airport rather than improve the current site with the potential of replacement.

"It seems like we're spending today's money when we know eventually we're going to have to move this airport," said Bellevue resident Donna Serrano. "It seems like it would be more fiscally responsible to put that investment toward the long term so we only spend that money once."

The problem, according to the commissioners, is that something must be done to increase reliability to retain commercial air service at the current airport while the replacement process is going forward.

"The status quo is not acceptable," Schoen said. "We want to change and make the situation better."

The issue of relocation also came up in a discussion of how to weigh environmental and quality-of-life concerns in future decisions.

While safety concerns have been deemed "paramount" by the board, the commissioners decided that minimizing environmental impacts should be of "high priority."

"We are certainly going to have less [environmental] impact if we just leave it where it is," Bowman said.

However, he said that might block the relocation that residents of Hailey and Bellevue are clamoring for.

The commissioners will continue the priorities discussion at their next regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 24, in preparation for a meeting of the Airport Authority board on Feb. 9.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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