Aspen airport plan not nailed down yet |

Aspen airport plan not nailed down yet

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Pitkin County commissioners aren’t yet ready to give up on a plan for the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport that would keep future development on the east side, along Highway 82, where it is currently centered.

Commissioners met Tuesday to discuss the financial feasibility of proposed facilities outlined in an updated airport master plan, but the location of at least one facility remains a matter of debate. The majority of the board asked for further analysis of putting a second fixed-base operator on the east side of the airport rather than the west side, off Owl Creek Road.

That means submission of the proposed master plan for Planning and Zoning Commission review next month, and potential formal review by commissioners in August, will be delayed, said Jim Elwood, the airport’s aviation director.

Commissioner Jack Hatfield asked why a second east-side fixed-base operator wasn’t presented as an option in the latest iteration of the master plan after asking that it get another look; consultant Mark McFarland said he gave up on that option.

“It didn’t work well enough that I was not embarrassed to show it,” McFarland said.

“The bottom line is that … if you have two east-side fixed-base operators, you run into several congestion issues,” he said.

Commissioners, however, said the issue remains a sticking point for some in the community.

“I want you to prove me wrong – that it can’t happen,” Hatfield said.

“We need to be able to look at it … and say, ‘Yes, this just doesn’t work,'” Commissioner Rachel Richards agreed.

Commissioner Rob Ittner also called for further exploration of fitting everything on the east side, though consultants predict it will affect what can be done with parking and planning for a new commercial terminal.

Commissioner George Newman said he was satisfied with the planning done to date, which puts a second fixed-base operator on the west side of the airport, and he warned his colleagues that two east-side, fixed-base operators would not preclude an operator from proposing a west-side operation. The Federal Aviation Administration has said the county can’t close off the west side from development. Only the airport’s operations center exists there now.

“That’s one of the consequences – just so everyone understands that’s one of the consequences,” Newman said.

The airport currently has one fixed-base operator, operated by Atlantic Aviation, which services general aviation and sells fuel to private and commercial aircraft.

During Tuesday’s review, Ittner also urged commissioners to consider how quickly they want to see airport improvements move forward once the master plan is adopted. It’s a 20-year plan, but the financial analysis puts projects, including a new terminal and parking facilities, and the addition of a second fixed-base operator, into a timeline that starts next year and concludes in 2018.

The FAA requires specific years, but 2013 simply represents Year 1. Year 1 isn’t necessarily 2013, commissioners were told. Still, the financial analysis is based on fund balances and interest-rate projections that are tied to actual years, starting with 2013, said County Manager Jon Peacock. The master plan, once it’s adopted, is likely to drive actual development proposals, he confirmed.

“We’ll probably be back to you, if not next year, then probably soon,” Peacock said.

“I think the board needs to make a decision on its tolerance level of actually starting this project next year,” Ittner said. “This is a budget for specific aspects of development.”

The process of developing a new facility, not actual construction, could begin next year, Richards clarified.

The financial analysis pegs future improvements outlined in the master plan at $171.3 million, including $120.8 million allocated to construction of a new terminal and associated roads and parking, including a parking garage. The plan envisions borrowing $50 million, to be repaid through airport revenues. Of the total sum for the terminal, roads and parking, $69.5 million is not eligible for federal funding or revenues from the passenger facility charge collected for each passenger that boards a commercial aircraft in Aspen, according to financial consultant Steve Horton. A big part of the $69.5 million is parking facilities, he said.

The financial plan doesn’t call for any local taxpayer support for future development, but fee increases at the airport will go toward the projects, Horton said, and Richards asked for specifics on the fees to be charged for parking.

Ittner questioned why government dollars would go toward building a taxiway parallel to the runway on the west side to serve a second fixed-base operator if one is built there. Such a project is eligible for grant funds, Horton said. Repayment by the fixed-base operator would be a matter to be negotiated, he said.

The financial plan anticipates private dollars to develop other facilities associated with a second fixed-base operator.

The airport, which operates without a local tax subsidy, remains financially healthy under the development scenario that’s proposed, Peacock noted, citing the financial analysis.

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