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Friday, July 30, 2004


How far is too far?

New airport’s distance from valley is nagging question

Express Staff Writer

Persistent as they are about technical issues in finding a possible site for a new airport, Friedman Memorial Airport’s consultants cannot escape the nagging question that seems to dominate meetings of a citizens site selection advisory group.

How far would a new airport be from the center of the Wood River Valley’s economic heartland, and how far is too far?

The question surfaced repeatedly Tuesday evening at the regular meeting of the 50-member citizens site selection advisory group that will spend 18 months studying whether a new airport costing upwards of $100 million should be built and where.

Total costs of the site study by consultants is estimated to be $992,466, with $942,842 provided in a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The site of a new airport has become a special concern for Wally Huffman, general manager of the Sun Valley Resort, who questioned whether the designated study area of possible sites—a large section with Bellevue on the north, Carey on the east, Shoshone on the south and Fairfield on the west—is too limiting.

Huffman said he wanted to "make sure we’re considering the area north of Bellevue."

Said Huffman:

"The resort (Sun Valley Resort) is the engine that drives" the Wood River Valley economy, Huffman said. The new airport site "must be measured from where the commercial demand is, and that’s the north valley."

He said that an airport built an hour and 15 minutes by ground travel from the resort is too far.

"That’s my gut feeling," Huffman said.

Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant, also a member of Friedman Airport’s governing authority but attending the advisory meeting as an observer, expressed her concern, too, about distance of a site.

She called the present airport’s location virtually adjoining the Hailey business district a "luxury," and warned of the dangers of a site too distant.

"Businesses will start looking to relocate," she said, adding that airline passengers could just as easily drive to Boise for their flights as drive too far to a new Wood River Airport.

She said "leakage" of passengers from a local airport would become a major loss to Friedman’s economic stability.

Horizon Airlines’ director of airport affairs, Ken Stevens, of Seattle, also made a point about distance. Horizon employees, he said, probably wouldn’t drive 45 minutes from their homes in the Wood River Valley to a new field.

Two of the airport’s consultants, Charles Sundby, of Toothman-Orton, and Tom Schnetzer, of Mead and Hunt, pointed out that siting would take into account ground travel time and the impact on passenger preferences.

The distance from the present Friedman airport most often mentioned is 20 to 25 miles.

In Tuesday’s meeting, the consultants offered 16 examples of potential sites within the diamond-shaped area where a new airport most likely would be built.

But the advisory committee is expected to produce only three preferred sites, after paring down the original list with tests involving their compatibility with the environment, obstacle-free location, and economic and social desirability for passengers as well as airport users.

Schnetzer told the group that even the present Friedman airport would be included in evaluations with other sites, although to meet FAA standards the current Friedman would require major physical alterations—relocating taxiways, acquiring new land to extend the runway and rerouting Highway 75 away from the airport boundary—and at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. But nothing could be done about nearby mountains that limit the field’s operations.

The FAA has said Friedman does not comply with the changing demands of larger airliners, but will be allowed to operate since it has shown the intent to consider construction of a new field.

Consultants asked the advisory committee for suggestions on what should be considered for a new site.

The general manager of Friedman’s only fixed base operator that provides service and ramp space, Mike Rasch, of Sun Valley Aviation, commented that a new site should "have some close proximity" to the Wood River Valley because of the heavy volume of general aviation pilots who fly here for vacation and business.

But that concept might create its own accommodation needs, he noted.

"I have a strong feeling there should be some mechanism in place to protect an airfield against development that would be incompatible—like residential next to the runway," Rasch said.

Horizon’s Stevens said his airline would want a nearby fuel tank farm for its aircraft, plus a runway allowing landings and takeoffs in both directions, and a field distant from housing to avoid lawsuits about noise.

When the question was raised by realtor Dick Fenton about the size of aircraft a new airport should be designed to handle, Stevens cautioned that the larger the aircraft operated by airlines, the less frequency of service.


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