by Rich Morrisey, Corvallis -
Several years ago, the FAA notified Ravalli County that the airport was unsafe according to its standards. The taxiway is too close to the runway by 40 feet under current FAA standards (200 feet instead of the required 240 feet). If an airplane were all the way to the edge of the runway and another plane were all the way to taxiway edge, their wing tips would be about 100 feet apart. That’s too close for the FAA. (The wing spans of so-called B-2 aircraft, the corporate jets that would use a longer runway, are about 50 feet.)
So, our prior Commissioners commenced months and months of hearings and studies, with lots of public input, which resulted in a selection of the so-called “2A” option: a reconfigured runway of 4200 feet, its existing length. This gave our Valley a small, safe airport at the lowest cost and this option was approved by the FAA. Said again, the FAA clearly and unambiguously found option “2A” to provide all requisite safety. Funding to start the project is now available, subject only to the current Commissioners agreeing. Jobs are now available.
Our prior Commissioners also gave the voters of Ravalli County a promise that if the airport were ever expanded beyond the 4200 feet in “Option 2A”, they would be given the right to vote on it. But our new Commissioners have undone the years of hard work and compromise that went into “2A”. Seems that not everybody was happy with a smaller, safe airport at least cost to the taxpayers; they want a longer runway to bring in bigger corporate jets.
Here are some facts, not opinions. The primary safety issue in this debate is the separation between the runway, which is currently 4200 feet, and the taxiway. To meet FAA standards, separation must be 240 feet, 40 feet more than now exists. Longer runways do not increase safety; they only encourage bigger jets. There are less than 100 aircraft based at the Ravalli County airport. The people that would be served by a longer runway and bigger airport are nonresidents with large corporate jets. The Airport Board, which is pushing a Rolls Royce expansion, is comprised only of airplane owners, pilots and airport business owners. It does not represent in any way the larger interests of Ravalli County citizens.
The yearly number of takeoff/landings at Ravalli County Airport has decreased. In 2010, the approximate number of takeoffs or landings by B-2 aircraft (aka corporate jets) was 400. Rocky Mountain Log Homes recently sold its larger B-2 plane. It accounted for approximately one quarter of all takeoffs/landings of B-2 aircraft in 2010. The current 4200 runway can currently service about 75% of all general aviation planes. The only reason to extend the runway to 5200 feet is to service large, out-of-town corporate jets. The Forest Service’s air tankers take off from Missoula with virtually the same average load of fire retardant as those which use our airport.
“Option 2A” is estimated to cost about $13 million. The County will be liable for five percent of this amount, or about $650,000 (for less than 80 plane owners). All other options considered by the earlier Commissioners would cost more, much more. The Environmental Assessment, paid for by the FAA, took over eight years and cost over $200,000. It resulted in the selection of “Option 2A.” That EA is now stale and was inadequate to begin with. If anything other than “Option 2A” is approved by the Commissioners, a new EA will be required. This will cost Ravalli County hundreds of thousands of dollars and cause years of delay. Jobs delayed and maybe lost. The FAA has said, “Not approving these agencies actions (i.e. selection of “Option 2A”) would prevent Ravalli County from proceeding with federally supported development in a timely manner.”
There have been wildly inaccurate statements about the effects of closing the Ravalli County Airport to effect “Option 2A.” The engineering studies already performed estimated the closure at 45 days and that could be done in February and March. The airport traffic in those months is minimal. The gas concession sells less than 200 gallons a day during that period. Get real!
The current Commissioners have unilaterally terminated the public vote on making the runway longer. (Of course, they said that bigger planes would not come into the airport if the runway were made longer. Duh!) The Stock Farm advertised, when founded, that the airport would be a mile-long runway capable of handling those big corporate jets. Mildenberger, one of the founders of the Stock Farm, owns the land that would have to be purchased to expand the runway. Mildenberger has said he would not sell the County land to effect “2A”, only if the runway were expanded to 5200 feet. Our current Commissioners have said they will not employ eminent domain to require a sale by Mildenberger.
If a bigger airport is built, it will attract bigger planes. More noise. More pollution. And the bigger damage of a bigger plane crash when it happens.
Studies by the FAA repeatedly show that property values decrease when air traffic is increased. And the decreases are not insignificant. One recent study showed an average decrease in property values of 27.4%. This is a “taking” of property rights. The County may have to compensate affected home owners. This will cost millions of dollars.
Commissioner Foss has stated boldly that a bigger airport will result in increased economic development, more jobs. There is absolutely no proof or evidence for this statement unless the onslaught of corporate jets results in another 100 gallons of jet fuel a day. No prospective business has turned away from Ravalli County because of the length of our runway. Commissioner Stoltz has stated that if we do not fix the airport, the FAA will shut it down and the County will be forced to buy it back. Of course, the County already owns the airport. Moreover, there are thousands of small, largely rural airports in the nation that have similar problems. The FAA is not going to shut down our airport.
The only two people to directly benefit from an expansion of the runway, with the consequent encouragement of large corporate jets, are the gas concession at the airport and Mildenberger who will sell more land to the County.
So my question to the Commissioners is simply this: Why not simply do nothing at the airport? Save the County at least the $650,000 “Option 2A” would cost and more if you should pursue any other option. Why subsidize the nonresident corporate jet set at the expense of property depreciation and pollution for residents? Why expose the County to many lawsuits over loss of property values? Exactly whose interests are you serving? Are you “tax and spend” Republicans for the wealthy?