Study: Cheaper to expand than move airport

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Aiming to chart the future course of Kalispell City Airport, the Kalispell City Council got an earful at its Monday night work session on the issue.

The council learned that it could cost more locally to close the airport than upgrade or move it, and that surrounding property owners are willing to sell their land for a proposed expansion — a roadblock in the past.

Jeff Walla of Stelling Engineers presented the council with a draft master plan laying out five options for the airport: Two to close it, two to expand it and make it eligible for federal funding, and one to improve it on the city’s dime.

A review of the $97,000 study’s findings was followed by two hours of public comment as people took turns speaking for and against the 83-year-old general aviation airport in south Kalispell and arguing for one option or another.

Council members took no action Monday, choosing to wait for a final report and take more time to consider its findings.

The draft master plan has been put out for comment by the city, the public and the Federal Aviation Administration. When that comment period closes in 30 to 90 days, Stelling will choose a final recommendation and issue a final document.

“At some point the city will have to accept or reject the recommendations in the master plan if they intend to move forward with a federally funded project,” Walla said.

THE FIVE OPTIONS laid out Monday included a “do-nothing” option that would eventually close the 79-acre airport as the facility deteriorates.

Walla estimated the airport’s existing runway could last five to 10 more years as-is “before falling apart.”

“You would lose users as conditions degrade and definitely not attract new users,” Walla told the council.

The city could also choose to close the airport more rapidly and relocate users to Glacier Park International, which sits six miles northeast of the city. Some users would make the switch while others would not, Walla guessed.

Closing Kalispell City Airport would not be without cost.

According to the study, it would be one of the most expensive options the city could choose.

Walla estimated it would cost $4.8 million to “buy out” various airport lease holders. That total likely would shrink as time passed and the 20-year leases neared their expiration dates.

IMPROVING THE AIRPORT in its present location without expanding or upgrading it to make it eligible for federal funding would cost an estimated $2.73 million — all of which would be borne by the city.

That option would require limited property purchases to improve runway protection zones.

It would keep the current runway location but widen taxiways and move them farther from the runway to meet standards for A-I and B-I aircraft, which include single-engine and twin-engine airplanes.

A fund for the Airport Tax Increment Finance District set up in 1997 holds about $1.6 million and generates about $500,000 a year.

That’s enough annual revenue to finance about $4 million of debt, outgoing City Manager Jane Howington told the council.

THE STUDY ALSO identifies two options that would expand and upgrade the airport to make it eligible for federal funding.

Upgrading the airport in its present location would cost an estimated $10.116 million but leave the city on the hook for only about $505,000 as federal funding covered the rest, Walla said.

That option would require the city to buy about 63 acres of land and move the runway south and realign it for better approaches and protection zones.

It also would require removing or shortening the two KGEZ radio towers, obstructions that extend into what would be protected air space. At least part of that project could be reimbursed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The city could keep the airport’s runway at 3,600 feet, since that is adequate for about 75 percent of its small aircraft needs. But it would have to buy enough land to support a future expansion to meet B-II aircraft standards, which includes twin-turboprop planes and small cabin business jets.

Howington said the city has received signed letters from all affected property owners indicating they would be willing to sell their land for the expansion. That was a roadblock in the past as some refused to sell and the council refused to pursue eminent domain actions.

The other option being explored to make the airport eligible for federal funding is to move it. The study selected a site near West Reserve Drive and West Spring Creek Road, as other sites were disqualified for various reasons.

Moving the airport to that location would cost an estimated $11.224 million with a local share of $1.543 million because the city could not be reimbursed for utility extensions and some other costs.

The option requires more study to make sure it would not interfere with flight patterns at Glacier Park International.

These two options are the only actions identified in the study that would make the airport eligible for federal funding.

That federal funding would include as much as $150,000 a year for annual maintenance — going back as much as four years — and an ability to be reimbursed over the next 15 to 20 years for some $3 million of city money that has already been invested in the airport.

WITH 72 AIRCRAFT based at Kalispell City Airport, the study found it’s not as busy as previously thought.

Earlier forecasts predicted as many as as 40,000 flight operations a year.

But an acoustic counter recorded 6,281 “noise events” from Sept. 22, 2010, to Sept. 22, 2011. Stelling estimated 11,306 flight operations for the year and revised that estimate up by 10 percent for a baseline forecast of no more than 14,000 operations a year.

Bad winter weather, high fuel prices and a sluggish economy all played a role in reduced airport activity, Walla said. “The bottom line is the original forecasts were likely erroneous,” he told the council.

The study found that single-engine A-I aircraft make up 95 percent of the planes using the airport. The rest are twin-engine B-I aircraft (3 percent) and helicopters (2 percent).

No B-II aircraft, which include twin turbo-prop planes and small cabin business jets, were observed at the airport during the study period.

Howington said there are 15 to 20 jobs at the city airport and that economics should play a big factor in any decision.

“There are a variety of businesses out there [at the airport], also multiple businesses that would be relocated or closed. We know one has already moved from our airport to Missoula because our facilities have become such that they couldn’t attract clients,” she said.

 

The draft master plan can be found online at www.kalispell.com under the mayor and council’s agenda items.

Reporter Tom Lotshaw may be reached at 758-4483 or by email at tlotshaw@dailyinterlake.com.

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