Friedman Gets Reprieve, but Only For So Long
HAILEY • A Federal Aviation Administration official affirmed the agency’s support for air service in the Wood River Valley Tuesday night, saying “We’re not walking away from this community and this issue.”
But she stopped short of guaranteeing that permits for Hailey’s Friedman Memorial Airport will always remain in the face of the design deficiencies at the area’s air hub.
“When we started this process, we had every expectation of bringing home a solution both sides could live with. But since, the world has changed,” said FAA Airports Division Manager Donna P. Taylor. “We want to make sure we’re hand-in-hand marching towards a goal we can both support.”
Taylor addressed about 100 people, including government leaders, pilots, congressional aides and a representative of the Sun Valley Co., at a meeting of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority Board at Wood River Middle School. She then met separately Wednesday with airport board members in a string of meetings held seemingly contrary to Idaho open meeting law.
Taylor, who approves any decisions regarding a new or existing airport, said addressing Friedman’s safety issues has been a FAA priority because it is a commercial airport. But she suspended work on a draft environmental impact statement for proposed replacement airports south of Bellevue two weeks ago due to the escalating cost of building a new airport.
Taylor said the FAA had spent $6.1 million of $7 million allotted for the study. But, with partial designs, the cost of a new airport jumped from a $100 million starting point to $300 million. And that didn’t include costs that would likely be involved with mitigating the impact on the area’s sage grouse, a candidate for endangered species protection.
At best, the FAA could have picked up half the cost of building the new airport. But even that’s questionable given Congress’ increasing reluctance to spend money, Taylor said.
“Does it make sense to spend the last million dollars and staff time for an alternative no one can afford?” she asked.
The suspension doesn’t mean the FAA is pulling back from doing all it can to assure area aviation continues, Taylor said. But the agency is concerned with the number of Friedman aircraft diverted to Twin Falls and Boise during winter storms.
The community has to determine whether it can expand the current airport to meet operational standards or whether it wants to forge ahead with one of the 16 possible new airport sites identified earlier.
“You can review other sites. But, at the end of the day, if you can’t afford to build it, it may be the perfect solution but a solution that will never become reality,” she added.
Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said he was pleased that the FAA still wants to partner with the community to find a solution.
One board member warned she and her husband couldn’t continue to live in the valley without air service because his business is built around travel.
“This community has been through a real tough time. Now we’re in a holding pattern. My concern is we could lose our air service while searching for solutions,” said Friedman board member Martha Burke. “Do we have to start over?”
“I don’t know,” Taylor replied. “I would feel presumptuous in even speculating what your next step should be. It’s not our role.”
The Airport Authority Board continued its discussion with Taylor in closed meetings Wednesday. The board plans to have an open public meeting to discuss what to do next on Sept. 27, said Board President and County Commissioner Tom Bowman.
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