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Sussex officials switch transportation priorities
January 12, 2011
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  • By Ron MacArthur

    January 10, 2011

    Federal funding will cover most of the estimated $9.5 million in costs to extend the county airport’s main runway 500 feet. Sussex County staff still wants to extend the runway 1,000 feet and is seeking other funding to meet the total $25 million cost.

    In line with that goal, Sussex County Council has moved work at the county airport, which includes relocation of a road, higher up on the county’s transportation priority list. The county provides an annual list of priorities to the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT).

    Improvements to east-west corridor roads and evacuation routes remain as other top transportation priorities.

    County Administrator David Baker told council Tuesday, Jan. 4, staff is looking for ways to obtain funding beyond the county budget to extend the 5,000-foot main runway by 1,000 feet, to 6,000 feet. The county has funds committed from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to pay for nearly half of project. FAA officials will not fund the additional extension because current air traffic does not merit the full extension.

    A big-ticket item, relocation of Park Avenue to make way for the 6,000-foot runway, is not part of the FAA’s plan because it would not justify funding for the additional work.

    Baker said the full extension is necessary to secure growth of the county airpark’s leading employer, PATS Aircraft Systems. “PATS has indicated to us they need a 1,000-foot extension for the planes like the Boeing 757, and we recommend trying to work out a plan,” Baker said. “But we understand the council has made it very clear that it’s not appropriate to spend the nearly $16 million difference in cost [between the 500- and 1,000-foot extensions]. We will look at every option we can.”

    Although hesitant to move work at the county airport from the ninth spot to the top spot, council voted to move it among the top three priorities. The county wants DelDOT to include $700,000 in this year’s budget to fund design work to realign Park Avenue, the road along the perimeter of the airport. Baker said the county would also ask DelDOT to include the estimated $5 million for construction in future budgets.

    As he has said in the past, Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, warned council to tread lightly on spending too much county taxpayer money for the extension. “We would be doing an awful lot for one company. I’m hesitant to go too far targeting just one corporate user of the airport,” he said.

    Baker said county staff is confident a 6,000-foot runway would be an incentive to attract other aircraft-related industries to the county’s airpark.

    Cole also wanted to know more about other airparks the county is competing with. “We need more information to make a major decision like this,” he said. Baker will get that information back to council at the Tuesday, Jan. 18 meeting.

    The county airpark is home to 16 businesses that provide more than 900 jobs with an annual payroll of more than $36 million. About 600 of those workers are employed at PATS.

    The airpark is also the location of Delaware Technical & Community College’s Aviation Maintenance Center. The county paid $1.2 million to purchase and renovate a 10,000-square-foot hangar to house the training center.

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