Lebanon — The Lebanon Municipal Airport will not get $750,000 of the federal money to which it is entitled after the city failed to have any improvement program approved, city officials learned last week.
“It’s a disappointment,” City Manager Greg Lewis said of the lost funds.
When there’s money available, Lewis said, “I like to see it always put into the hand of Lebanon.”
The Lebanon airport receives $1 million each year — when at least 10,000 people depart from Lebanon — from the Essential Air Service program, a federal program intended to ensure that small communities have access to air service. The $750,000 is what’s left of the Lebanon airport’s 2012 allocation.
If the airport does not spend the federal money within three years, it is dispersed to other airports in the region, such as Manchester-Boston Regional Airport or Portsmouth International Airport at Pease.
“If one airport can’t use (its entitlement money), it goes to another airport; if they can’t use it, it goes out of the region,” said Airport Manager Rick Dyment.
Despite several attempts, city officials were unable to come up with a capital improvement project for this year that met Federal Aviation Administration standards.
“I think we are under (a lot of) scrutiny by the FAA … in part because the city has not come to a reconciliation over the safety area dispute,” Lewis said.
The city had initially proposed a $2.6 million project to repair pavement and improve drainage in a 1,500-foot section of the airport’s east/west runway in October, but the FAA rejected the proposal because the city has not moved forward with a recommendation to bring the dimensions of the safety area around the runways into compliance with federal safety guidelines, according to materials provided to the City Council.
“Until we address the safety issues, we won’t be getting money for runway construction,” Dyment said.
The federal entitlement money covers 90 percent of the cost of such projects, when approved by the FAA, while the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and the city each pay 5 percent of the total cost.
In 2013, the City Council rejected a safety improvement project which would have brought the city into compliance with the FAA by a vote of 5-3, according to a Valley News story at the time.
Former City Councilor Steve Wood, whose Poverty Lane Orchards abuts the airport, said at the time he supported the city’s rejection of the runway work because he did not believe that the recommended changes would improve safety at the airport.
Councilor Karen Liot Hill, however, said at the time she worried the city would lose federal support for the airport as a result of the council’s refusal to move forward with the FAA’s recommendations.
Also in 2013, the council rejected a proposal to remove 30 acres of trees between the east/west runway and Poverty Lane, but councilors later approved the tree removal. The trees are slated to come out next winter.
Last fall, after the FAA rejected the city’s $2.6 million proposal for runway maintenance, the city proposed to direct its federal entitlement money to improving a 3,510-foot portion of the east/west taxiway, instead, according to materials provided to the City Council.
A runway is the paved strip planes use for take off and landing, while the taxiway is used to get to or from the runway.
The FAA rejected the taxiway proposal, however, telling the city it could not spend all of its available entitlement money before it addresses the runway safety areas.
The city proposed a smaller scale $1 million project addressing part of the taxiway and in early March the City Council set a public hearing for the project for this Wednesday. But last week, city officials learned the FAA rejected the city’s request for an extension from May 1 to July 1 in order to design the project.
Without the extension, Lewis said the city cannot move forward with the project this year.
“One way to look at it is we lose the money,” Dyment, the airport manager, said. “The other way to look at it is it causes whatever we were doing to be deferred.”
Lewis said the city will try to put together a better application for 2016. He said he thought they would try to move forward with the taxiway project, but they might find another way to spend the federal funds that “makes good management sense.”
Dyment said he was hopeful that the city might be able to address a larger area in 2016, “rather than start out with a small project that is somewhat inefficient.”
In the meantime, the city is working to create an airport master plan, which would guide future decisions about the airport.
Lewis said one goal of the master plan is to bring members of the community together with local, state and federal officials in order to “try to eliminate polarization,” which has characterized previous discussions.
“We can’t just fight over a bone,” he said.