The Federal Aviation Administration's recent letter to the city of Steamboat Springs wasn't altogether surprising. We knew the FAA would be opposed to closing Steamboat Springs Airport and that there would be financially penalties to such an effort.
But the letter does raise questions about the city's proposed $100,000 study of alternative uses for the airport.
When the study was initiated last spring, we agreed with the City Council's approach, saying the city needed clear and unbiased information about the airport. We still feel that information is necessary, but we're less confident in the city's chosen methodology.
In May, the city appointed a seven-member Airport Steering Committee to determine the scope of the work in the alternative uses study. Basically, the committee will decide what the study will entail and what it won't. That sounds fine in theory, but the reality is that, given the committee's makeup, it's hard to be optimistic the process will achieve the intended result.
The council stacked the committee with airport advocates and critics, believing that their interaction will produce something acceptable by both sides. Committee members include Jack Dysart and Bob Maddox, who city staff consider proponents of the airport; Bill Jameson and Michael Turner, who are considered to be critics of the airport; and "neutral" members Paul Ferguson, Eric Morris and David Sladek.
The FAA letter showed how far apart some of the committee members are.
The letter - from Craig Sparks, manager of the FAA's district office in Denver - states the FAA would fight any effort to close the Steamboat airport and that it would cost nearly $10 million to do so.
Committee member Dysart said the letter is very serious and that the committee should discuss whether to continue with an alternative uses study. Committee member Turner had a different opinion. He said the FAA letter isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
That's the same kind of predictable debate we have been hearing about the airport for more than a decade. The average taxpayer is left trying to figure out whom to believe.
The Airport Steering Committee decided last week that it would hold weekly meetings to hammer out what it wants in the alternatives study. We're sure that will produce more debate between the airport proponents and critics. But we're less sure that it will produce meaningful information for taxpayers.
Here's an idea for the council: Scrap the Airport Steering Committee and hire an unbiased, outside auditor to review the airport, and don't let anyone with an airport agenda near the auditor.
Tell the auditor to review the city's investment in the airport, determine how much is spent on maintenance and operations and figure out what should and should not be included in calculating airport costs.
Here's all we want to know: First, how much are taxpayers paying to subsidize the facility? Second, since it is unlikely the airport will be closed in the near future, how can the city operate the airport at break-even? The two obvious solutions are to decrease operating costs or increase user fees. Because costs may not be able to be significantly reduced, the audit should include a comparison of fees charged at other Western Slope resort airports.
Do we really have to rehash the same debates and spend $100,000 to get these questions answered?