BRIDGEPORT — The Benedum Airport Authority voted April 29 to pen a letter to state and federal officials opposing a proposed 1,001-foot runway extension for Morgantown Municipal Airport.
But Morgantown Assistant City Manager and Acting Airport Director Glen Kelly said the project will bring infrastructure development to a state that badly needs it.
The proposed extension would extend the runway from 5,199 feet to 6,200 feet.
Kelly said the U.S. Air Force Reserve will contribute roughly $12 million in earth work. The airport will put in $5 million; the city will put in $3 million; and the Monongalia County Development Authority will put in $1.2 million, he said.
Morgantown Municipal Airport will seek another $15 million or so from the Federal Aviation Administration, Kelly said.
Kelly said the airport has lost corporate clients due to the current length of its runway and issues created with liability insurance.
“We’ve got a major gap,” Kelly said. “The world has changed because of liability insurance, so to keep that corporate business and also to maintain our little commercial piece, that’s what we’re doing.”
But officials with the Benedum Airport Authority, the board that stewards North Central West Virginia Airport, said investing so much in the Morgantown project doesn’t make fiscal sense when the Bridgeport airport — located just 34 miles to the south — already has an 8,000-foot runway.
Benedum Airport Authority President Ron Watson said the issue is “absolutely not” about competition but rather about using taxpayer funds wisely.
“The issue is, with an 8,000-foot runway, putting in another expansion isn’t the wisest and the best use of taxpayers’ dollars,” Watson said. “The question is, is $30 million to expand the runway in the best interest for Morgantown? Morgantown’s probably going to say yes, and we’re just saying it isn’t.”
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, who also serves on the Benedum Airport Authority, said he would feel the same way if the local airport were looking to invest significantly in duplicating an asset already in place at Morgantown’s airport.
“If the shoe was on the other foot, and it was Bridgeport airport trying to duplicate the same facility that was 34 miles away in Morgantown, I would be voicing the same objection,” Romano said. “In today’s budget cycle, we’ve got to make sure that we spend every tax dollar efficiently and wisely.”
Romano added, “I think that if Morgantown had the same facility as North Central West Virginia Airport, I think what you end up with is two mediocre airports that, while they compete with each other, would never compete with airports outside of West Virginia.”
But Kelly said that, under current circumstances, Morgantown’s airport is already losing business to Pittsburgh. Improving the runway will bring more corporate flights — and thus more business development — back to Morgantown and to the state of West Virginia.
“Quite frankly, we’ve never tried to compete with Clarksburg, because we’re competing with Pittsburgh,” Kelly said. “It enables us to keep the business-class traffic that we are currently losing.”
As for using taxpayer funds, Kelly said the money would come from discretionary spending earmarked for this kind of development. He alluded to several runway projects at North Central West Virginia Airport that were funded through a similar process.
Kelly also questioned the notion it would be redundant to extend Morgantown’s runway. He said having extensive air service infrastructure is a hallmark of areas with lots of economic activity; if anything, having two strong airports close to one another lays the groundwork for future growth, Kelly said.
“West Virginia is so infrastructure-poor, we’re going to mess around because we’ve got two real airports within 34 miles?” Kelly said. “It’s a piece of infrastructure that’s required for business, and you don’t need just one.”
For his part, Romano said West Virginia’s population doesn’t support having two similar airports located in such close proximity. If the state had two regional airports — one in the northern part of the state, the other in the southern part of the state — then those airports would be able to significantly grow their commercial air service offerings, he said.
“That can’t happen if you have two airports competing with one another,” Romano said. “The issue here is that we are losing almost 80 percent of our commercial traffic to other airports because Morgantown continues to insist on having commercial air service, which prevents North Central West Virginia Airport from becoming a true regional airport with daily flights to major hubs.”
He pointed to the success of Allegiant Air flights — only offered locally through North Central West Virginia Airport — to Orlando, Florida, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as an example of what can happen when a unique offering draws customers from throughout the region.
By contrast, both Morgantown and North Central West Virginia Airport offer flights to Washington, D.C. Those flights have not met enplanement goals at the Bridgeport airport since the start of the current budget cycle.
“Having our commercial flights tied to Morgantown and Parkersburg, but particularly Morgantown, causes so many delays and so much uncertainty that people are willing to drive longer distances to a major hub like Pittsburgh,” Romano said.
Kelly indicated that Morgantown Municipal Airport plans to continue offering direct flights to Washington, D.C.
But Kelly said the Morgantown runway extension won’t interfere with the successes enjoyed in recent years at North Central West Virginia Airport. He said the runway still wouldn’t be long enough to truly compete for the Allegiant flights or for the Big 12 football charters that have signed on to fly through Bridgeport.
In the case of infrastructure, more is more, at least as far as the state and the region are concerned, Kelly said.
“Without infrastructure there is no economic development, and that’s why they’re all necessary,” Kelly said. “You don’t say, ‘Well, there are two interstates — let’s get rid of one.’”