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Moving the runway at Aspen’s airport could conclude a decades-long debate over expansion

Pitkin County commissioners gave initial approval to a resolution on April 10 that would update the Airport Layout Plan for the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport and move the existing runway 80 feet to the west. The Federal Aviation Administration has indicated that they will only approve the new updates if the runway is wider and can accommodate larger aircraft.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Pitkin County commissioners gave initial approval to a resolution on April 10 that would update the Airport Layout Plan for the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport and move the existing runway 80 feet to the west. The Federal Aviation Administration has indicated that they will only approve the new updates if the runway is wider and can accommodate larger aircraft.

The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport has been embroiled in controversy for decades over whether it should expand the width of the runway.

Opponents are concerned that a wider runway means bigger planes and more traffic in and out of Aspen, but a recent decision from Pitkin County commissioners to rebuild the runway 80 feet to the west might force the expansion.

Scott Condon, a reporter from the Aspen Daily News, has been covering the airport lately and spoke with Halle Zander about the newest update and how the Federal Aviation Administration is getting involved.

Halle Zander: Tell us, Scott, about the Pitkin County commissioners’ recent decision about the airport runway. What did they approve last week?

Scott Condon: So on Wednesday, they voted five to nothing to go ahead and move the runway west. The reason they have to do that is because the current runway is deteriorating, and they feel like they have to move the runway altogether and rebuild it so that it's a longer-lasting, stronger runway.

Zander: Right. So, from my understanding, how you describe it in your article, when the county builds a new runway, the FAA gets to decide how wide it's going to be, and they will require it to be wider than it is now to accommodate larger aircrafts. Is this essentially an end to the decades-long debate over the size of the runway?

Condon: Maybe. There's a new group that's come into the scenario and that's called Citizens Against Bigger Planes, and they are collecting signatures on a petition, and that's going to be presented to the county commissioners. And their goal is to have a public vote on what goes on with the runway. Right now, they're just looking at basically a popularity survey, or petition, but there is a process that they could go through under Pitkin County’s home rule charter called an initiative petition, where they could essentially force a ballot question on the issue. So as it stands now, we have the county commissioners, they've got to do a second reading and a public hearing on their decision to move the runway 80 feet to the west. That is going to be coming on May 1 at a time yet to be determined. So from the county's perspective, it's wrapping up. But there is a wild card with the citizens group. Could they force a ballot question?

Zander: So Aspen Fly Right is a local nonprofit that's been arguing that the county should maintain fiscal independence from the FAA and make their own decisions about the airport and how big the runway should be. And they argue that Pitkin County can get their own funding for projects and renovations. But the airport advisory board was against that approach. Can you explain why?

Condon: There is more information to be learned about that whole part of the debate. Because Amory Lovins, who is the president of Aspen Fly Right, talks about how, with revenues from Aspen's Fix Based Operator, there should be enough money to forgo FAA grants and still come up with the airport that they believe the community wants. But the county commissioners were adamant in their meeting last Wednesday that the county would be in a real bind if they told the FAA, "We don't want your funds, your grants." The commissioners did say that they have learned information in executive sessions, which are closed to the public, they've got insights into the financial situation, which we, the public, don't have yet. And they said that hopefully they're getting to a point where they're going to be able to share more of that financial information.

Zander: Right. And the county says the FAA has put their foot down and will require a wider runway, regardless of whether or not Pitkin County receives federal grants to do it. So is there any local choice in the matter?

Condon: That depends on who you talk to. The county says “No,” and the county's consultants tell the county commissioners, “No.” There isn't any leeway, that no matter where the runway gets built, whether it gets built at its current location or gets moved to the west, it's got to be 150-feet wide. Because the FAA is saying that Aspen-Pitkin County Airport must meet the criteria of what they call a Design Group III airport, and part of that criteria is the 150-foot wide runway. Aspen Fly Right insists that as long as the county meets certain safety criteria, that there is some autonomy to be had. I don't know if that's the case or not.

Zander: Yeah. So, the FAA has told Pitkin County in the past that if they really wanted to restrict what types of planes land on their runway, they'd have to lobby in Congress to get the laws changed. Have the commissioners made those efforts?

Condon: Commissioners Patty Clapper and Francie Jacober were in Washington, D.C., sometime about a month ago, and they met with FAA officials … I think they were trying to get a better understanding of where the FAA’s position was. And they came back and briefed the rest of the board and made it very clear that what they were hearing, loud and clear, is Pitkin County is risking funds if they don't adhere to the direction that the FAA wants.

Zander: How much do you think the FAA will spend on this new project moving the runway to the West?

Condon: I have not seen any current statistics on that or data on that, but Aspen Fly right has got some pretty interesting financial information. And they've got data that just shows that if you combine the runway work and the new terminal, it's multi-hundreds of millions of dollars.

Zander: If there is a runway expansion, how do you feel like that will impact the culture of our community in Aspen?

Condon: Yeah that's the big question, and that's a debate that's been going on for decades as to whether bigger planes bring more people and cause more growth pressures. Aspen Fly Right, and the other citizens’ group insist that that's the danger that they are trying to guard against. And I think there are legitimate concerns about that in a valley that's always struggling with its growth control. But there are people that are equally adamant on the other side of the issue that say it's not the size of the runway that's going to dictate whether there are more tourists coming. Is there the capacity to put them up in tourist accommodations, etc., etc.? The interesting thing to me is, for this winter, Aspen and Snowmass had occupancy around 60%. And so if you've got 40% occupancy, that's not filled, will you have more people coming in that make it busier? That seems like a possibility. It's not for me to say whether the community thinks that's good or bad.

Zander: Okay. Thank you, Scott.

Condon: Thank you.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.