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Vote on Lebanon Municipal Airport Runway Due Tonight 

Lebanon — The long debate over a major runway project at the municipal airport could finally be drawing to a close.

The City Council is set to vote tonight on a proposed runway improvement project that some city residents are opposing on both fiscal and environmental grounds.

It remains unclear how much of the city’s share of the project cost would ultimately land at the feet of taxpayers, but it could be as much as $1.3 million, according to airport officials.

Additionally, the proposal to expand the runway would involve 38 acres of tree removal, 800,000 cubic yards of “earth work,” and would have a direct impact on 10.6 acres of wetlands.

The council already approved the funding for the runway project when it adopted the city budget last month, but it requested at that time that the tree clearing work at the airport property be delayed until further discussion. The city would have to bond for its 7.5 percent share of the project’s cost — which would be funded 90 percent by the Federal Aviation Administration and 2.5 percent by the state — but Airport Director Rick Dyment has argued that airport revenues would be enough to offset the cost.

“In the past six or so years, all of the city’s cost to improve and maintain the airport has been zero, and to me, that sounds like a bargain,” Dyment said yesterday.

Anthony Roisman, an environmental lawyer who lives on Poverty Lane in Lebanon near the flight path of the airport, isn’t persuaded of the need to upgrade the runway. Roisman, who is active with other city residents opposed to the runway project, said that the same argument was used when the airport built commercial hangars — and the facility continues to lose money each year.

“On top of that, the statement would be much more convincing if anybody had done a competent market analysis that demonstrated that there was any basis for (the) optimistic view,” added Roisman.

While Dyment frames the improvement project as vital for securing the airport’s economic future, Roisman said airport officials are going after the federal dollars for the project simply because the money is available.

“You’ve got an airport, you want a bigger airport,” Roisman said.

But Dyment said the expanded runway would attract more flights, both commercial and private, and therefore generate more revenue for the airport through landing fees and fuel sales. He said that while it hasn’t been recently quantified, the airport encourages tourism to the area and has a net economic benefit on the region.

“You may not fly in a corporate jet, but it’s an absolute benefit to the city to have that access,” he said.

Dyment estimated that the city’s cost for the project would be offset by existing airport revenue, but acknowledged that some of that burden could potentially fall to city taxpayers. He referred to the yearly deficits incurred by airport operations as “so-called deficits,” arguing that airport revenue as well as payments to the city’s general fund offsets more than half of the $198,500 that city taxpayers paid toward the airport in 2012.

According to city Finance Director Len Jarvi, the taxpayers’ share of the airport’s projected operating cost next year is $215,500. He said that while the airport generates a “certain amount of revenue,” it was hard to view the business model as sustainable.

Jarvi is anxious about the future of the annual federal Essential Air Service program, a $2.2 million annual subsidy that facilitates Cape Air’s use of the Lebanon airport and makes it economically viable. The program has been under threat by House Republicans in recent Congressional budget talks.

“If Essential Air Service goes on the block again, the subsidy goes away, would that aircraft carrier continue operating in Lebanon? Probably not,” Jarvi said. “Then, there goes your passengers.”

He added, “It’s tough to have that Sword of Damocles hanging over your business model.”

Of the two proposed runway improvement projects that the council will weigh tonight, Dyment described the one backed by airport officials as the lowest-cost, lowest-impact option. That option, which would extend the north-south runway by 1,000 feet and reduce the east-west runway by 500 feet, would be funded in part by the federal government, anywhere between $13 million to $23 million.

The council will also take into account a costlier alternative, as well as a “no build” option that would actually lead to a reduction in runway size.

Dyment said that the “no build option” could cut corporate jet traffic in half, risking up to $70,000 in revenue generated annually from landing fees. He added that could also lead to a decline in property tax collections from those leasing commercial hangars on airport land.

Roisman took issue with Dyment’s argument. He said that Cape Air — the sole commercial airline serving the airport — would still be able to fly its planes in and out of Lebanon, even with the reduced runway size.

As for corporate jets, Roisman referred to an environmental assessment done by airport officials that found that those jets would also be able to continue to use the airport, with some weight limitations imposed upon them, and that those limits would not reduce the amount of traffic at the airport.

“What we’re really coming down to is that right now, the federal government is in a giving mode,” said Roisman. “And the city’s airport authority wants to get their money.”

Dyment said that no regardless of the airport’s size, capital improvement projects are funded by a Federal Aviation Administration program that is supported through airline user fees.

There is “a misconception that this is going to be a hit on the federal taxpayers with these expensive projects,” he said.

While Roisman stressed that there is a wide recognition that the facility should remain open, he said that airport officials should come to terms with the fact that they won’t be able to compete with Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

“That’s what’s killing the Lebanon Airport,” he said. “Let it go back to the airport that flies in little dogs on planes. That’s what we want, a little airport that provides those kind of benefits.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.