County residents debated the need for an $85 million airport expansion project Tuesday.
The community forum hosted by the county commissioners started off with a presentation on proposed improvements at the Durango/ La Plata County Airport that are part of an also proposed airport master plan.
Project manager Dave Nafie, from the Jviation consulting firm that is doing the master plan, said three alternatives presented several months ago were narrowed to one because they considered it the best long-term option: to build a new passenger terminal on the east side of the runway.
"There are a number of pressing needs, especially the terminal," he said. "About mid-way through the plan, we narrowed the focus to one for the financial analysis. The overall big picture is we are looking for concurrence (from the county and city of Durango) to study the single alternative... to have the study team finish the master plan with the focus on that one alternative."
The existing terminal is too small to handle current passenger loads, let alone projected growth to 300,000 to 400,000 per year, Nafie said. It's now around 200,000. The building was designed many years ago to handle around 100,000, he said.
"Annual passengers is different from peak periods," he said. "Some days you wouldn't see anything and wonder what's the problem. In the summer all the seats are full. The peak month in Grand Junction is lower than here."
Lines for TSA security screening clog the entrance now for people entering or leaving the terminal, he said. Over the long term - 20 years - building a new terminal east of the runway is the cheapest option, he insisted.
On the question of how to pay for this, Nafie said, "We asked the Federal Aviation Administration how much we could expect from them. They said up to $35 or $40 million would be reasonable." They also want an equal local contribution to have the best chance of getting FAA funding.
"That creates a budget of $80 to $90 million including airport operating revenues," he said. "We looked at which alternative best fit that situation: alternative 3 (the new terminal) if we could afford it."
The local match could include a property tax increase, which would require voter approval. Nafie said the increase would cost $36 to $54 a year per $350,000 of residential valuation, which he said compares favorably to the cost of driving to Albuquerque to fly out of there.
The current terminal is 37,000 square feet plus around 5,000 square feet in the temporary tent structure, Nafie said.
To meet current needs, which he referred to as Planning Activity Level (PAL) Zero, the new terminal would be 82,000 square feet with 1,500 parking spaces, four airline gates, and one overnight plane parking place.
The cost estimate for that is $85.4 million, versus $63 million to expand the existing terminal to meet current needs (alt. 1) or $61 million to build a new terminal just north of the old one (alt. 2). The theory is that once an airport is adequate for current needs, it can pay for future improvements with airline and passenger fees, Nafie said.
While alt. 3 is more expensive to meet current needs, by 2035 the other options would run out of room to meet growing passenger loads and the east side terminal would still be needed, he said.
He estimated that 2020 or 2021 is the earliest the a new terminal could be finished.
Anticipating local skepticism to the process, Nafie said, "A lot of times the big city consultant comes in to reinforce something that's already decided on. I assure you that's not the case."
Some audience members didn't buy that. Of the 31 people who spoke, 10 supported the plan, and seven said that in their experience, the current airport works fine. Some comments couldn't be categorized for or against.
Several speakers noted pending big utility rate increases that will hit people in Durango and other possible tax increase requests that voters will be seeing on top of any airport proposal.
Some speakers said they fly frequently out of the airport. Others said they fly intermittently. A few are private pilots.
Several people wanted more direct flights to and from here. They argued the proposed expansion is critical to that. Availability of direct flights affect peoples' travel decisions, such as for skiing, some argued.
Supporter Pat Vaughn said, "More opportunity means more direct flights which increases tourism which increases sales tax" revenue.
Supporter Al Harper, owner of the Durango & Silverton train, said, "We have to make this improvement for the economic stability today and the future growth."
Supporter Jodi Doney, who works at the airport, said the current facility is dangerous. Expanding the current terminal would be putting lipstick on a pig, she said.
Bayfield area resident Betsy Romere said, "I'm very much in favor of improving the airport. Times have changed." She said she wouldn't mind paying the property tax increase for this, but it shouldn't be just property owners who pay.
John Byrd said he is a frequent flier and has never had a problem at the airport. He said it's the most user friendly airport he has ever used, and he questioned how many high traffic days actually push airport capacity to justify spending $85 million. He was one of those who noted the county is likely to seek a property tax increase for other needs, to make up for declining tax revenue from natural gas development.
Gilda Yazzie said, "I use the airport about four times a year. I've never had a problem. For TSA, you just get there early. I don't want this area to be like Aspen or Denver. I think the airport is fine. If you want more direct flights, give them a subsidy."
Durango resident Mike Todt said, "I fly a lot. I don't see the problem that $80 million needs to solve. ... It's scare tactics to say if we do nothing, the airlines will go somewhere else."
In contrast, supporter Paul Romere said, "I use the airport a lot. I can't go along with the idea that it's a fun place to go through." He cited baggage handling delays, especially when several flights come in at one time.
Steve Thibodeaux, who lives just east of the airport, objected that he and other residents there were never polled on the alternatives. He asserted there have been misrepresentations of facts and ever-changing numbers to justify alternative 3.
Robert Lea from Durango objected, "There's a problem with narrowing the alternatives too early. It looks like a pre-determined decision."
Bayfield area resident Phil Bryson said he supports "doing something. Using the airport is very challenging. ... I worry that we are rushing to get something on the ballot." The cost should come from user fees, not just property taxes, he said.
Steve Doob didn't think the airport needs expansion, but if it happens, the cost should come from user fees.
The county commissioners continued discussion after all public comments were done and many attendees had left.
On questions about the passenger growth projections, Nafie said, "Passenger traffic has doubled in the past 10 years even through the recession when airports were losing passengers... PAL Zero (meet current needs) isn't a cop-out. It's saying do this and the airport can fund future improvements."
New commissioner Brad Blake said, "There's a lot of misconception about PAL Zero. I'm still in favor of moving forward with PAL Zero..."
Commissioner Gwen Lachelt indicated she shared Phil Bryson's concern about rushing to get something on the ballot. "If it doesn't pass... Our needs are now. What are the plans to address those?"
Commissioner Julie Westendorff agreed they need to look at funding options other than a property tax increase to get better community support.
The commissioners will continue discussion at their March 10 business meeting that starts at 10 a.m.