JEFFERSON — Ashtabula County commissioners agreed, but have not passed a resolution in support of a proposed runway expansion project at the Northeast Ohio Regional Airport.
Members of the Ashtabula County Airport Authority met with commissioners Wednesday afternoon to discuss the project.
The airport’s runway surface is at the end of its design life and in need of the improvements or it becomes an unsafe facility and not in compliance of FAA standards.
The project will take the runway from 5,200 feet to 5,900 feet as well as bring the airport’s Runway Safety Area (RSA) into compliance with the current FAA design standards, which is required when an airport undergoes runway reconstruction.
The estimated cost of the project is $8.5 million with $7.5 million being funded through Federal Aviation Administration funding. The remaining $789,000 will come from local funding.
Commissioner Dan Claypool expressed a high degree of uncertainty as to the necessity of the project.
“You are asking the taxpayers to invest $8.5 million,” he said. “At the end of the day, what do we have that we don’t have now? What’s the pot of gold for this $8.5 million investment?”
Claypool said he questions doing an $8.5 million project to completely redo the runway when it might be more economical to rehabilitate it instead.
The original runway pavement and base is 46 years old, with the newest pavement rehabilitation overlay being 23 years old.
Paul Strack, engineer consultant for the project, said because of the new FAA law, which requires the airports to bring the RSA up to compliance, the reconstruction project is necessary for the airport to remain a C2 category airport.
“The runway needs to be repaved, it’s 30 years old and cracking,” he said. “If you let it go, you no longer have an airport. If you repave it, you have to do it to FAA standards.”
Claypool argued the significance of being a jet-capable facility.
“Our everyday airport is for general aviation,” he said. “Our whole general aviation plan has been put on the back burner.”
ACAA President Dwight Bowden disagreed with Claypool, maintaining the upgrades will benefit all traffic that comes through the airport.
ACAA Vice President Lance Bushweiler said the airport is not a general aviation facility, but an economic development tool for the county.
Bushweiler said in the last month, two C-class jets have landed at the airport, one being a national pet retailer looking to possibly open a location in the county and the other being a potential real estate investor.
“I’m not disputing that jets come through here,” Claypool said. “Our every day bread and butter is general aviation. That’s what this airport was built for.”
Bowden disagreed, saying the airport was built as an economic development tool and the founding statement reflects that.
“With 17 percent of the county’s population looking at poverty, we have to do something better,” Bowden said.
Bowden clarified that the board was not asking the county for money for the project, just a letter of support to help in obtaining funding.
Bowden said the FAA grant will cover 90 percent of the project cost with a 10 percent local match, which the board is looking to the private sector as well as state funding.
“The project is basically funded,” he said. “All we are looking for now is political support to push us over the line with the FAA.”
Commissioner Peggy Carlo said the reason the county is skeptical is the airport is still short on the operational end of things and with every county department requesting additional funds for 2014, the county is stretched pretty thin.
Carlo said she would be in favor of providing the ACAA with a letter of support, but as far as any additional money, the county cannot commit to that.
The airport’s projected 2014 budget is reflecting a $270,000 loss.
“I don’t want anyone walking away today thinking I don’t support the airport,” Claypool clarified. “I want the airport to succeed as much as anyone at this table.”