John Colson: The airport plan lands on BOCC on Thursday
Hit & Run
On Thursday at 4 p.m., there will be a meeting of the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to hear the supposedly final report of the county-appointed ASE Vision Committee, about a proposal to expand the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport’s runways to accommodate aircraft with longer wingspans than planes that currently can land there.
I strongly recommend that everyone with any interest in the airport and the future of this community, watch that meeting on Grassroots TV, or live-stream it from the Pitkin County website (go to pitkincounty.com, then scroll down to the Watch Meetings button).
There are a number of reasons to tune in, starting with the simple fact that the BOCC will be getting the distilled wisdom of several committees that have spent the past year and more discussing the airport expansion idea, which is projected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, take years to complete and have some effect on such things as noise, air pollution, passenger comfort and other factors related to airport operations.
But underlying that simple fact are a lot of other facts that may excite you, strike fear into your heart or leave you dumbfounded and questioning whether our county’s elected government has taken leave of its senses.
Have no doubt about it — the outcome of this meeting and any number of possible governmental actions afterward will have a profound impact on the lives of everyone in Aspen and Pitkin County, whether they are regular users of the airport’s services or not.
One key aspect of the current debate is the problematic existence of a 2018 Environmental Assessment, mandated by federal regulations, that came up with a number of projections and predictions about airport operations related to the expansion of the runway width by 50 feet. The expansion is needed, according to officials, because the relatively compact and powerful main aircraft serving Aspen for the past couple of decades, the CRJ-700 built by Bombardier, may be phased out of service by 2028. And new planes being considered for replacing the CRJ-700 have wider wingspans, meaning they could not land at our airport as it is now configured.
In addition, neighboring residents have been complaining about the noise and noxious fumes emanating from the airport for years, though the EA projected that the smell and the noise might well increase if the airport were to be expanded as outlined in the EA.
Enter the ASE Vision Committee (really four committees in all, looking at different issues), appointed by the county more than a year ago to take another look at the expansion idea to see if it could be reworked and improved.
According to some of those involved, the committees took a cursory look at the EA, decided it did not fit in with the “values” of environmentalism and small-resort flavor held by many local residents, and concluded that they needed to take a different course than the one outlined in the EA.
In doing so, they have to come up with a number of recommendations that are very different from the EA, including such things as negotiating with air carriers to get them to fly cleaner, lighter aircraft; cutting the number of new gates that would be built at an enlarged airport terminal; and providing electrical connections to the aircraft to cut down on the time the engines are idling, among other suggestions.
Overall, the committees’ recommendations call for cutting “greenhouse gas” emissions related to airport activities by 30% in the coming decades, though exactly how that is to be accomplished remains a little unclear.
All in all, the committees’ recommendations are vastly different from the projections and estimates contained in the EA.
Unfortunately, though, a recent news story in this newspaper paid lots of attention to the EA and not enough to the committees’ recommendations, meaning that readers did not get an accurate picture of the committees’ work.
I suggest that the BOCC, when it gavels the Thursday meeting into session, make it absolutely clear that the EA is not the controlling document in this discussion anymore, and that the committees’ findings and recommendations are what we really are talking about.
For my money, there still are a lot of unknowns in this proposal, such as whether the CRJ-700 truly is being put out to pasture soon, and exactly how the county is supposed to negotiate a deal with airlines about replacement.
And then there is the question of whether this whole matter should be put to a vote, as it was with the last airport-expansion plan, in 1995, and the voters rejected it.
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“When the Aspen School District Board of Education meeting ended four hours after it began on Sept. 21, it seems there was only one thing on which the more than 200 virtual attendees agreed: The meeting was emphatically difficult to watch,” writes Meredith Carroll.