FAA funding shortfall grounds some Aspen airport projects | AspenTimes.com

FAA funding shortfall grounds some Aspen airport projects

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
A commercial passenger jet moves in for a landing at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport last week.Commercial air service at the Aspen airport is on the rise.
Aubree Dallas / The Aspen Times |

Pitkin County announced Thursday that a shortage in federal funding has changed its focus on its airport expansion project.

Such pending projects as underground parking, a second fixed-base operator and a new taxiway on the airport’s west side are now on hold. The county’s plan to acquire Burlingame Open Space along Owl Creek Road, which would have required a public vote, also has been temporarily shelved.

“Based on funding availability, … we had to prioritize the project,” County Manager Jon Peacock said.

A statement from the county said, “Airport officials learned over the summer, after a dual (environmental assessment) process had already begun, that (Federal Aviation Administration) funding availability had decreased because of demand from airports around the nation on the FAA’s funding pool.”

That means the county’s chief priorities now are to make FAA-required runway safety improvements and construct a new airport terminal, a project that will be subject to an environmental assessment.

County officials say the airport must be upgraded and improved in order to meet FAA guidelines to accommodate larger aircraft with wingspans as long as 118 feet. The airport’s current wingspan limitation is 95 feet.

Ninety-five percent of the airport’s commercial flights are served by the CRJ700 regional jets, which are made by Bombardier. The aircraft will be retired starting in 2018, with the entire generation expected to be grounded by 2025.

The airport improvements are being proposed so the facility can accommodate a new generation of commercial aircraft, such as 737s or other models.

“Safety has always been the top priority at this airport,” said airport Director John Kinney in a statement. “We will be reconfiguring the runway to meet FAA design standards to accommodate aircraft with wider wingspans that will replace the commercial fleet serving Aspen in the coming years. We also need a new terminal to address existing safety and functional issues and to better serve the traveling public.”

Runway reconfiguration will still require a small portion of Owl Creek Road to be realigned within existing right of way, while more extensive impacts on Owl Creek Road will not be necessary, the county said. The runway would be widened from 100 feet to 150 feet, Kinney told The Aspen Times.

And rather than doing two environmental assessments as originally envisioned — one each for projects on both the east and west sides of the airport — now just one assessment is needed, the county said.

Should funding become available for the west side, another environmental assessment would be done, Peacock said.

County commissioners will discuss the revised plans at their work session Tuesday, and they are scheduled to make a formal decision at their regular meeting Wednesday.

From 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Limelight Hotel, the county will hold a public workshop about the revised environmental-assessment process.

As it stands, the price tag of the project that’s moving forward is an estimated $132 million, 90 percent of which will come from the FAA. The remaining 10 percent would be supported by the aeronautics division of the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport Enterprise Fund.

Peacock said the refined plans, all part of the airport’s complex 2012 master plan, should be easier for the community to grasp. The county has held a series of community-outreach meetings this year to gauge the public’s opinions on the expansion.

“This has been confusing for the public,” Peacock said. “Understanding in the community was confused by the dual process (the two environmental assessments) and this put it together nicely for us.”

Community feedback didn’t shape the county’s decision to focus on runway safety improvements and a new terminal, Peacock said.

“But it did influence how we want to think about the EA process,” Peacock said.

“We have listened to the community, we have had a ‘reality check’ with the FAA and we are looking forward to a simplified EA scope and process with robust community involvement as we move forward,” Kinney said.