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Lebanon Airport Misses Funding

Lebanon — As a result of a decision made by the City Council earlier this year not to expand one of the runways at Lebanon Municipal Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration will not be funding two major projects there.

The City Council in April voted narrowly not to lengthen the north-south runway by 1,000 feet and against lowering the elevation of a nearby hill by 30 feet, so-called “runway safety area” improvements that the FAA deemed necessary.

Six months later, city officials are learning — though not unexpectedly — that the airport will not receive federal dollars for the construction of a $1.4 million building to house snow removal equipment, nor will it receive funding for an airport master plan — a comprehensive policy document that would help guide future decisions about the airport.

If councilors had OK’d the runway extension, the FAA would have provided 90 percent of the funding for the estimated $1.3 million project. Airport Manager Rick Dyment said the FAA is still committed to fund airport safety or security projects, such as runway maintenance. City Councilors were warned in April that voting against the runway expansion would limit funding for all airport projects other than those for safety and security. City Councilor Nicole Cormen, who voted against the expansion, said the airport’s safety record should have been enough to convince FAA officials to keep all the funding in place until the master plan is complete.

“If we were the aviation equivalent of Route 4 in Quechee, that’d be really different,” Cormen said. “It really did put us in a very difficult position, and there’s legitimate desire to protect local control over local assets ... We have plenty of skin in the game here, it’s not like we’ve just been the recipient of all this stuff at no costs to ourselves.”

At the start of the current fiscal year, the city had contributed nearly $2 million from the general fund to the airport since 2009. Cormen was also hopeful that the FAA would have still contributed money toward the snow removal equipment building.

“I have to say I find it somewhat disappointing on the part of the FAA, considering they paid for that equipment and now they’re not interested in helping us maintain the stuff we already had,” Cormen said. “So that’s a little bit odd.”

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill, a supporter of the runway expansion, said she is “disappointed, but not surprised” at the FAA’s decision.

“It was made clear that some of the risks included in not going along with their recommended safety improvements was the loss of federal funding for things we wanted to do,” she said. “This was something that we were warned about.”

Dyment said the airport has grants in place to finish the design plans for the snow removal equipment building, and would place the project on hold once those plans are complete with the hope that FAA funding will eventually be restored.

As for the master plan, the city has selected a firm to complete the document and is preparing to shoulder the entire cost for the project, which all parties deem necessary going forward. Dyment said a cost estimate is not yet available for the master plan, which he estimated would be completed sometime in the first half of 2015.

While Cormen was disappointed in losing out on federal funding, she added that the Council is there to “make tough decisions and face the heat.”

“ ... Knowing what we know now, I would make that same decision today, because honestly I just don’t think we ever had an objective rendering of the facts regarding the airport, top to bottom,” said Cormen.

The master plan document will contain data on the airport’s operations, both economic and environmental. It will also take into account current and optimal use of the airport by Lebanon and other Upper Valley communities.

Liott Hill calls the master plan “the path forward for the city.

“I hope (it will) give us a very clear picture of what’s going on there now, exactly what the costs are at the airport but also exactly what the benefits are, and I think those are not well understood,” she said. “We’ve been managing costs in a short-term way ... but we don’t have great information about the long-term costs of what different capital decisions are.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com.