Small Airport’s Big Plans Grounded by FAA Following Taxpayer Turbulence

Flack over city projections with millions of federal funds at stake

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has notified the City of Blue Earth, Minnesota that it has rejected its plans for a $7 million runway extension. The controversial runway has been under consideration since 2005 and was denied further funding by the FAA because the projected flight numbers don’t justify the cost, according to FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.

“Things have changed, we’ve made a decision at this time that it’s not justified,” Molinaro today told the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. “We looked at the expected number of future flights, we looked at how many planes would be based there and using that airport and the numbers just aren’t there to justify it. It's mainly because of economic conditions.”

The revised air traffic projections appear to corroborate critics’ concerns thatrecent estimates used to promote the project were off base. “We feel the need has to be there before spending that kind of money,” said Rodney Anderson, whose farm is in the airport flight path. “They just don’t have the numbers here to warrant it.They had numbers so inflated it stuck out like a sore thumb!”

To justify the expense of building a longer runway, the FAA requires airports to demonstrate they have the potential for at least 500 annual take-offs and landings of larger aircraft. Yet in 2009, the city’s revised survey now states there were only 28 such take-offs and landings at Blue Earth Municipal Airport. The city has also dramatically reduced the number of take-offs and landings of larger business aircraft forecast for the next few years to 272, well below the FAA threshold.

“The current numbers are down from what they were before,” said Kathy Bailey, Blue Earth City Administrator. “Right now, there’s probably not enough to support expansion.”

Truth is, no one knows the precise number of planes that use the rural airport in Blue Earth or for that matter, most small airports. Small airports do not have to report every flight. Rodney Anderson, the 76 -year old farmer who lives near the municipal airport, says he sees maybe one flight per day, while the city survey suggests two to three on average, almost all of them small planes that require a short runway. Whatever the number, everyone agrees, take offs and landings are down due to the recession.

So why would a city with declining population and a municipal airport with a declining number of flights apply for and receive funding for a $7 million airport runway extension? Critics say the case for the mega-project becomes even more dubious considering there’s already an airport with a 5,500 foot runway for business and commercial aircraft just 14 miles away in neighboring Fairmont.

“Definitely, I would say that if 95 percent of the money wasn’t coming from the outside, we’d have to reconsider whether we’d build,” Kathy Bailey said. “As a representative of the city, I view it as money coming from outside our local economy.”At $7 million, the price tag amounts to about $290,000 per plane for the 24 aircraft currently based at the Blue Earth Municipal Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration pays 95 percent of the cost of small airport upgrades nationwide under the Airport Improvement Program (AIP.) In Minnesota alone, 96 small airports qualify for AIP funding. The program was designed to fund public-use airports that contribute to civil aviation, national defense, and the post office. According to critics, however, the availability of AIP funding can inspire spending proposals that would not fly if local taxpayers were footing most of the bill.

“There’s absolutely no merit to expanding this airport with the Fairmont airport just down the road,” said John Huisman, a retired high school principal and Blue Earth city council member. “We had to come to the discovery that every community cannot have its own high school. Things are changing. We can’t all have an airport within 15 miles of each other.”

The Blue Earth runway expansion appeared to be on track for full federal funding until questions were raised regarding the city’s flight projections. Last December the city was ordered by the FAA to revise its survey numbers. The survey was compiled by the city’s contract engineers, Bolton and Menk, afirm that handles the same job for the nearby Fairmont airport, which has a $5.5 million pending upgrade.

Bolton and Menk says the economic downturn accounts for the lower number of projected flights by local businesses that were resurveyed. They stand by the accuracy of previous estimates, as does the FAA. “A lot of it has to do with the current economic conditions and the way people are operating their businesses,” said Ron Roetzel, Aviation Group Manager for Bolton and Menk.

Roetzel calls the reevaluation process over the Blue Earth runway a good example of how the system works. Yet Roetzel does not rule out the possibility of the Blue Earth runway being extended someday. Meantime, the FAA indicated it has approved a $332,000 engineering grant for routine maintenance work on Blue Earth’s current runway and taxiway.

Still, opponents can hardly believe they have apparently grounded the expensive expansion. “This is such a waste of taxpayer money,” said Les Wiborg, a city council member. “We can’t afford this stuff. We’re the joke of the county because of all the potholes in our streets. That’s what we should be working on.”

Tips, comments or suggestions? Contact Tom Steward, FFM Investigative Director. 952-451-3684.

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