Aspen airport runway should stay put, Pitkin County commissioners say in 4-1 vote
At long last, the future of the Aspen-Pitkin County airport took a significant step forward Thursday.
Pitkin County commissioners decided 4-1 to accept the recommendation of a community-based committee and leave the runway where it is, a bedrock decision in the long process toward a new terminal and airfield.
Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury noted that while leaving the runway where it is will be more expensive and require more concrete, more of that project will be paid for by federal and state grants than the plan that moves the runway 80 feet west.
“Moving it takes money out of the pockets of the community and families,” she said. “That led me to support leaving it where it is because of that fact.”
The board, however, punted on whether to widen the runway by 50 feet, which would make the airport able to accept so-called Aircraft Design Group III airplanes, which include wingspans as wide as 118 feet. The coronavirus pandemic’s scrambling of the airline industry, uncertainty over the future of airplane technology and the likelihood that runway construction would come up last, in at least a decade, under the plan agreed to Thursday fed into postponing that decision.
“We have the time,” Commissioner George Newman said. “(Many) decisions will fall into place based on those future conversations.”
Thursday’s decision to leave the runway where it is could be reversed in the future, depending on the Federal Aviation Administration’s reaction to it. The FAA approved the plan to move the runway in July 2018, but has not heard about the different plan of leaving the runway alone.
Still, the 4-1 decision by the board Thursday allows county staff to bring a plan to the FAA, gauge the reaction and move forward from there.
Board Chairman Steve Child was the lone dissenter, saying he worried about certain safety aspects of the project involving leaving the runway where it is and liked that the plan to move the runway had already been approved by the FAA.
“I’m generally more in favor of moving it than leaving it where it is,” he said.
Thursday’s decision on the runway was the culmination of many, many hours of discussion the five county board members have had in recent months about the future of the terminal — which nearly all agree is raggedy, unkind of staff and travelers and in need of replacement — as well as the airfield, which supports the third-busiest airport in the state.
Those discussions, in turn, were prompted by 18 months of work by several committees made up of community members, which studied different aspects of the airport operation. The lead committee in that process — known as the Vision Committee — presented 15 or so recommendations about the airport to commissioners just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early March.
County staff now will compile all of the commissioners’ recommendations — based on those Vision Committee recommendations — into a resolution that will be presented at the board’s regular weekly work session Nov. 4. The public will have a chance to comment on those recommendations Nov. 10, possibly at a joint in-person/virtual meeting to be held in a larger venue like the Limelight Hotel.
The big decision in those recommendations was the runway, however, and commissioners took their time getting to it.
The plan given the thumbs-up Thursday envisions leaving the runway alone and moving the taxiway 20 feet closer to the terminal and Highway 82, thus creating a 400-foot separation between the runway center line and the taxiway center line. That separation is a key FAA demand, and one that would allow aircraft with larger wingspans to land.
Vision Committee members suggested the idea at the last minute, saying they didn’t like moving the runway closer to Shale Bluffs and that the plan would cause two airport closures in the busy summer tourist season.
Previously, the FAA approved a plan — which it studied for three years — to move the runway 80 feet west to achieve the 400-foot separation. That process also gave approval to build a 140,000 square-foot terminal — Aspen’s terminal won’t be anywhere near that big — next to the relocated runway.
The fastest way to a new airport would have been to adopt that plan.
The route commissioners chose, though, will take much longer.
That’s because the new airport layout plan must be studied by the FAA in what will likely be a new environmental process that will take at least a year and probably longer. The county also will be on the hook for the environmental study this time because the FAA paid most of the $2.8 million tab last time.
In addition, leaving the runway where it is squeezes the airport’s infrastructure between the runway and Highway 82 and could require development of a taxiway on the Owl Creek Road side of the airport, as well as a new long-term airplane parking lot on that side. It also would require relocating the tower, moving de-icing pads and re-jiggering aircraft and vehicle parking near the terminal.
Commissioner Patti Clapper pointed out leaving the runway where it is allows implementation of more of the board’s and the community’s goals to reduce emissions and noise. Also, she said it was the best way to move forward with designing and building a new terminal, which nearly all agreed is badly needed.
“What’s out there now is unacceptable,” Clapper said.
As far as widening the runway to accommodate larger planes, Commissioner Greg Poschman said he sees no point in moving forward in such a time of upheaval in the airline industry.
“I don’t see any reason to rush for any reason,” he said.
Board members also agreed to tone down language in the Vision Committee recommendations stating that Aspen’s airport would accept larger planes “as long as” they agree to certain conditions regarding plane size and passenger numbers.
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