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Column: Runway Project Makes Sense for Airport and City Taxpayers

Moving ahead with the proposed safety improvements to the Lebanon Airport runways — a project that comes before the City Council tomorrow night — makes sense not just for the airport operation but also for Lebanon taxpayers.

At issue is whether the city should accept between $13 million and $23 million in federal and state funds to extend the airport’s north-south runway by 1,000 feet and shorten its east-west runway by 500 feet. The changes would meet new federal aviation regulations and allow larger planes to continue landing in Lebanon.

As with any major project there are trade-offs that need to be weighed against each other to determine the best course of action. Key to the discussion of this project are four major considerations. They are:

Grant assurances

Some people have urged the city not to accept the federal and state money on the grounds that it would obligate the city to continue operating the airport for an additional 20 years. That is correct, but also irrelevant: The city is essentially obligated to operate the airport indefinitely in any case because it accepted Federal Aviation Administration funds to build the airport back in 1941.

The FAA has determined that the Lebanon Airport is an integral part of the National Airspace System. If the city wanted to close the airport, the FAA would insist that the city provide a local alternative airport of equal capability at its own expense. That doesn’t seem like a palatable alternative, so it’s safe to assume that the airport will remain a city asset indefinitely. This factor should not affect the city’s decision about the advisability of proceeding with this project.

Environmental impact

An environmental study of this project indicates that approximately 40 acres of land would be affected, including 10.6 acres of wetlands. Except for 10.5 acres of land outside the airport where tree-clearing would be necessary, all of the project would be on city land. The nearest residents are some 1,500 to 3,200 feet from the periphery of the project area. Therefore, the project will have no significant impact on residents.

Although the project would still have some environmental impacts, it would still prove to be environmentally beneficial to Lebanon.

One way to mitigate the wetlands impact is via the payment of an in-lieu fee, which for this project would be $1.7 million. The city would be required to pay 5 percent of that, $85,000, which is already included in the estimate of the city’s cost of the project; the rest would be eligible for FAA funding, and that, too, is included in the estimates of federal funding for the project. Such fees are usually put into a conservation fund and in this case would be available for conservation projects within Grafton County. It seems reasonable that Lebanon could request that this money be used for projects within the city. This is a substantial amount of money that could be used for key conservation initiatives that would otherwise cost Lebanon taxpayers much more.

Noise

Although some residents have opposed this project out of concern that it would increase noise associated with landings and take-offs, a study suggests the project would not create any changes in noise that would need to be mitigated based on FAA standards. However, if the city rejects the project, FAA regulations would still require runway safety improvements, which could be achieved only by shortening the runways and limiting the kinds of aircraft that could use the airport. Landing aircraft would need to use full-thrust reversers to stop with an adequate safety margin. In addition, the shortened runways would force aircraft to do a static run-up take-off roll where brakes are applied and the aircraft is brought to full power before starting the take-off roll. Both procedures produce greater levels of noise than what is produced today.

Financial impact

A number of factors need to be considered to assess the project’s financial impact. Currently, commercial service is provided by Cape Air under the Essential Air Service program. That program, which provides federal subsidies to make commercial air service available to rural airports, has come under attack during discussions about the federal deficit. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., is among the members of Congress who say they oppose continued funding of the program. If the Essential Air Service is terminated, Cape Air would likely pull out of Lebanon, which would result in the airport losing approximately 60 percent ($500,000) of its revenues.

If the project is approved, the airport’s longest runway would increase to 6,200 feet. The minimum threshold for most regional carriers is 6,000 feet. The project would make the airport more attractive to regional carriers, providing the city with many options for air service, which would be especially important if it lost this particular subsidy.

The shortened runways that would result if the runway-improvement project is rejected would reduce the number of larger aircraft using the airport. This reduction in traffic would reduce landing fees by as much as $78,000 and volume-based fuel fees by approximately $22,000 — a total revenue loss of $100,000.

One of the airport runways is scheduled for a rehabilitation in 2017 at an estimated cost of $4 million. Going forward with the more extensive runway improvement project would defer the rehabilitation work for an additional 20 years. If the airport is forced to proceed with 2017 rehabilitation work by rejecting the more extensive project, Lebanon would be required to pay for approximately 13.5 percent of the cost — about $540,000. That figure needs to be kept in mind when discussing the city’s share of the larger runway improvement project, which is estimated to be between $650,000 and $1.3 million.

The creation of runway safety areas at all airports is a priority of the FAA, and federal and state funding is currently available. Given the federal budget situation, funding might not be available or might be reduced in the future, thereby requiring the city to pick up a larger share of the cost.

To fund the city’s 5 percent portion, the city would need to issue a bond for between $650,000 and $1.3 million, depending on the final cost of the project. Assuming the city’s share comes to $1.3 million, the first-year cost of servicing that debt would be approximately $134,000. It is our understanding that the airport manager is exploring ways to have the airport produce the revenue to cover that cost. Additionally, Granite Air Center has agreed in principle to a special assessment on the fuel it sells to help pay off the bond.

This project makes sense for both the airport and city taxpayers. It provides the best path for the airport to get on a firm financial footing, would be cost neutral to the city and would provide valuable environmental benefits throughout the city.

Gregory J. Soho and Jason A. Archambeault are co-owners of Granite Air Center, the fixed base operator at the Lebanon Airport. This commentary is based on a letter submitted to the City Council.