No runway expansion without economic expansion

Published on Thu, Dec 12, 2002 by Meg Olson

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No runway expansion without economic expansion

By Meg Olson

At the heart of the new Blaine airport expansion feasibility study is a chicken and egg story.

“If the council were to extend the runway additional properties and additional economic opportunities are key,” consultant David Ketchum told Blaine city council at a December 9 work session. “Without economic development opportunities I don’t think the expansion of the runway is federally fundable.”

Ketchum described the longer runway as the magnet that would draw development and businesses to the area, but U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits to fill wetlands for the runway extension would require a pre-existing need for the airport to be used by more and bigger planes. “If there’s not a presupposition of need it won’t get very far,” he said. The airport meets basic qualifications for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding, but without economic development at the site it’s unlikely it would get any. “It’s economic development that drives the number of based airplanes and it’s the number of based airplanes that drives FAA funding. Unless there’s a reason to extend the runway it won’t be funded,” he said. “They’re inter-related to the point one is dependent on the other.”

Hired by the city to look at the airport’s future, Ketchum focused on the feasibility of the expansion being proposed by the city’s airport commission in the draft of his final report. The proposed expansion would widen the runway and extend it from 2,100 to 3,500 feet, so that rather than being able to accommodate only half of the types of aircraft smaller than 12,500 pounds and classified as “general aviation aircraft” it could welcome 75 percent. With another 300 feet the airport could accommodate 100 percent of the fleet.

Airport operations would move to the east side of the airport and a taxi-way would be added. “Whether or not the airport is expanded that’s a good idea,” he said. Operational improvements Ketchum suggested included a city-owned welcome center for visiting aircraft, better signage and parking.

Expansion plans include significant property acquisitions to the south, southwest and east of the airport that would allow for the longer runway, safety improvements, more room for airport operations and “airport related and airport compatible” businesses. “This entire airport needs to be looked at in terms of economic development. The airport then becomes a component, not the driver,” Ketchum said.

Moving airport operation to the east side of the runway would allow better use of land owned by the airport along the truck route. “The 3,000 or so trucks coming through that area cannot be ignored,” Ketchum said. “They aren’t being taken advantage of commercially and the airport could play a part in that.”

Airport commissioner Doug Fenton said they had already identified 58 acres they would need to acquire to expand the airport. “The majority are owned by two people, the same people we are condemning an easement over,” he said. The city is in court with the Klein and Carruthers families to secure an aviation easement over their properties that would allow removal of trees considered a hazard to landing planes. Fenton said he wasn’t optimistic the city could negotiate with those property owners to buy the land but could condemn the property, forcing a sale at a price set through the courts. “We’ll negotiate with them and if we can’t make a deal the city has other powers,” he said.

There are three large wetlands on the proposed expansion properties, including the headwaters of Cain Creek. Ketchum said the project’s feasibility hinged on the feasibility of working around or mitigating impacts to the wetlands and wildlife habitat they support. “It’s established necessity as a next stage to understand these wetlands a lot more than we do now,” he said. “If they were to grow it detracts from the logic of extending the runway. If the runway is extended it’s an irrefutable fact it needs to be extended over a wetland, but some of the land use can be done so it’s compatible with wetlands.”

With significant wetlands to contend with, Ketchum said the project would be facing more permitting and regulatory requirements, as well as added costs for mitigating damage to wetlands. City manager Gary Tomsic asked if the city embarked on the airport master planning process through the FAA, a preliminary to that agency funding a project, they would fund wetland studies.

“If you do it after convincing yourselves and the FAA this is the way to go they would be 90 percent involved,” he answered. “If you do it earlier, before you committed yourselves to the project, they would be involved very little,” he said. Ketchum recommended the city absorb the relatively modest cost of wetland delineation before committing to what could be a $10 million dollar expansion project. While the FAA and state aviation administration would fund land acquisition for runway improvements, he added the city would have to find another funding source to acquire land for economic development.

Ketchum said another important next step would be to schedule a public meeting, because if the community isn’t behind the expansion it’s chances of securing FAA funding dwindle.

“During the master planning process it would have to come out clearly the desire to extend the horizons as well as the size of the airport,” he said. “We’re talking about changing the nature of the airport. Now it’s basically recreational. If you go to 3,500 feet and add an economic development area the airport will be used more commercially.” He added the community would also need to give a strong endorsement to the downtown location of the facility.

Council member Bonnie Onyon asked if the airport could be improved more modestly in its current configuration by moving operations to the east side and addressing some safety concerns. “Yes,” Ketchum answered. “The airport’s future is more logically on the east side.” While the option of closing the airport, moving it or leaving it unimproved were on Ketchum’s list of possibilities at the beginning of the study period, they were not in the draft report.

The airport expansion is likely to stay on the council agenda in coming months. Ketchum asked that council members start by writing down their opinion on which direction the airport should go. “That will help you get to the next stage of debating it amongst yourselves,” he said.

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