Community will be able to weigh in on airport change and growth

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A new west-side taxiway and fixed base operator, a new runway alignment, and a new terminal are all on the list of improvements at the Aspen airport, seen here from Shadow Mountain in early 2014..

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

A new west-side taxiway and fixed base operator, a new runway alignment, and a new terminal are all on the list of improvements at the Aspen airport, seen here from Shadow Mountain in early 2014..

ASPEN – The director of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is moving on to another facility, but planning for the future will continue well beyond Jim Elwood’s tenure.

On Tuesday, the outgoing aviation director shared with Pitkin County commissioners the timing of proposed improvements to Sardy Field, which could be phased over the next decade.

Replacing the existing commercial terminal is top priority in the master planning process, and within the next 30 days, a grant application will be submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration that could cover the costs of an environmental assessment. The EA, a required step to gauge a project’s impacts, may take up to two years to complete.

According to JD Ingram of the consulting firm Jviation, the FAA’s ongoing involvement in planning the future of Aspen’s airport will be helpful when competing for grant allocations.

“The FAA makes economic decisions based on priority rankings. When you have the FAA reps themselves at the table, they see the value in it,” Ingram said.

In early 2015, the FAA is scheduled to begin reviewing Sardy Field’s airport layout plan, which could potentially include a new runway design. Elwood said more runway space is needed in the future to accommodate jets with wingspans wider than 95 feet. By 2021, half of the current fleet will be retired, and all of the current commercial jets are to be taken out of service by 2025.

In terms of the proposed timeline for airport improvements, Elwood stressed, “The board and the community control this timeline to the extent they want.” He also said that a decision to move forward “doesn’t mean we have to build that item.”

That seemed to provide some comfort to Commissioner Rachel Richards.

“Our community, rightfully so, has a lot of concerns about change and growth … and this ultimately is a lot of change and construction over the next seven or eight years,” she said.

Commissioner Rob Ittner wants to reserve the county’s right to consider “a small re-verification” if new information comes forward from an airline or aircraft manufacturer that could nullify the need for a runway to accommodate planes with wing spans of up to 115 feet.

Runway relocation wouldn’t be finished until midway through 2022, according to the initial schedule. And that would allow airport officials time to consider a change.

“It’s really prudent we continue to cross-check the information,” said Elwood, who recently announced he is leaving Aspen, after 13 years, to take the airport manager’s job in Jackson, Wyo.

During the next six months, outreach efforts will be designed to inform the public about the Future Air Service Planning Study, which includes redeveloping the terminal area, possibly reconfiguring the runway and considering an additional private aviation center. In July, commissioners approved $219,000 for outreach efforts.

The terminal area improvement has already been approved by the FAA as part of the airport’s 2012 master plan. It impacts circulation on the airfield, parking and the current private aviation center. The lease for the current fixed-based operator, Atlantic Aviation, expires in 2023.

After the project’s environmental assessment is complete, there’s a six-month window to study all aspects of the plan in the hopes of gaining what is known as a “FONSI” (finding of no significant impact).

“Once you have that FONSI in the process, you can start the design of the terminal,” said Ingram. Its construction could take up to four years, with completion targeted around the end of 2021.

Community input will be key to planning for a potential runway expansion that could encroach onto Owl Creek Road and the contiguous Burlingame Ranch open space parcel. Studies have determined that moving the existing runway 80 feet to the west and widening it by 150 feet could help bring the airport up to FAA standards.

Elwood said this facet is still under evaluation and will be revisited after the community has a chance to weigh in on the plan.

The expansion would also allow room for a second fixed-based operator for general aviation, which Elwood indicated would likely happen. Landmark Aviation has submitted an application, and others are anticipated.

Early estimates target the airfield expansion to cost at least $121 million.

“We have a need to share with the community what these pieces mean to us,” said Elwood. He asked commissioners to remember how important public transparency is to the process.

Ittner agreed that the public should be a part of the ongoing discussion so there are no misunderstandings. For example, it could take a year to construct a new runway but not all of the work would be done at once. Instead, the construction could be completed during offseason and night closures of the runway.

“We don’t want anyone to think a year of construction means the runway is going to be closed for a year,” said Ittner.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of local governments. The Daily News published this story on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. Follow reporter Madeleine Osberger on Twitter at Madski99.

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