Friday, February 23, 2007
Steamboat Springs The federal official who strongly cautioned the city of Steamboat Springs last August against thoughts of closing its airport, acknowledged Thursday that there is a "mechanism in place" that could allow the city to shut down Bob Adams Airport. It would involve writing a big check.
"We're going to do everything in our means to try to convince you not to close the airport," Craig Sparks told the Steamboat Springs Airport Steering Committee. "We're going to put the squeeze on you a little bit. You're going to have a hard time persuading us that an airport where 90 aircraft are based is not economically viable, but there is a procedure."
Sparks is the manager of the Denver Airports District Office and oversees airports in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. His presence drew an overflow crowd consisting mostly of general aviation pilots to a meeting room at Centennial Hall.
Sparks told the Steering Committee that ultimately, the success of any plan to close the airport would come down to the city's ability to compensate the federal government for grants it has accepted in the past 20 years.
The Steering Committee has not been tasked with finding a way to close the airport. Instead, at the same time it is studying an airport master plan that would guide future development at Bob Adams Airport, it is also undertaking a study of alternative uses at the site. They include shutting the airport down.
Sparks wrote a cautionary letter to Steamboat Springs City Manager Alan Lanning last summer. It was drafted after he learned of a petition asking City Council to put a question on the November ballot seeking the voters' opinion about the ultimate fate of the airport. In his letter, Sparks reminded the city it has contractual obligations to the FAA stemming from many years of grant monies that have gone into airport improvements.
"In accepting over $9.53 million in Airport Improvement Program funds, the city has agreed to specific federal obligations, including a commitment to keep the airport open and make it available for public use as an airport," Sparks wrote. "Since the city acquired land with AIP funds, this obligation runs in perpetuity. Thus, the city may not close the Airport without FAA's consent and without a formal release of the city from terms of the applicable Federal regulations."
The letter left some members of the community with the impression the federal government had closed the door on the possibility of closing the airport.
However, on Tuesday, Sparks acknowledged if the city had the means to compensate the FAA for the millions in dollars in airport grants it's concievable the federal government could allow the airport to be closed.
Pressed by Steering Committee member Bob Maddox to explain why he took such a hard line in his letter, Sparks said his agency has a mandate to ensure the continuation of important airports as part of the nation's overall system.
"The letter I wrote was very tough," Sparks said. "What I was saying is that there are people above me. There are congressmen who don't like to see airports closed. They have put in strong rules to keep airports open. We want you to look at ways to keep the airport open and increase revenue."
Steering Committee member Bill Jameson asked Sparks to calculate the dollar amount in question. He told him the group is tasked with large studies at polar opposites - one to weigh the pluses and minuses of closing the airport, and a second to inventory possible improvements. They include a runway extension that could add up to millions of dollars in investments, most of it from state and federal governments.
"We're going from gold plated in the master plan, all the way to closure," Jameson said.
Master plan consultant Dennis Corsi of Armstrong Consultants reminded Jameson that the only firm recommendations that would come out of the master plan are safety related. Investments in improvements such as runway extensions are only options that have the potential to increase the functionality and economic strength of the airport, he added.
If the city were to attempt to close its airport, Sparks said, he would calculate a prorated share of grants younger than 20 years old for which the city would have to reimburse the feds. There would be a costlier bill that would come due on grants the FAA provided for the purchase of land. In the case of three grants used to purchase 148 acres at the local airport, Sparks said the city would have to pay the federal government the full current value of the land appraised at its highest and best use.