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Airport runway extension OK’d

By Staff | Nov 2, 2009

In a very close vote, the Blue Earth City Council approved the $ 6.1 million airport runway extension project.

The vote was 4-3. Councilmen Dick Maher, Glenn Gaylord and Rick Scholtes, along with Mayor Rob Hammond, voted yes. Councilmen Dan Brod, John Huisman and Les Wiborg said no during the roll call vote.

The decision came at a special council meeting held last Monday night with the airport project as the sole item on the agenda.

The vote came after a presentation on the project by Ron Roetzel of Bolton and Menk engineers, a time for council arguments for and against the project, and a time for members of the public to express their opinions as well.

It also came after a question involving a possible conflict of interest was resolved by the city attorney.

Councilman Huisman brought up the potential for conflict of interest, pointing out that both Mayor Hammond and Councilman Scholtes are employed by BEVCOMM.

Huisman pointed to the study done by Bolton and Menk which showed BEVCOMM could be the major user of the airport, and the runway extension.

Attorney David Frundt said he felt if BEVCOMM was not gaining financially from a contract with the city, there should not be a conflict of interest issue.

Frundt quoted state law pertaining to elected officials and construction projects, but added he could not find anything specific to city councilmen and airports.

In the end, both Hammond and Scholtes were allowed to vote on the resolution to proceed with the project.

The vote means the city will proceed to extend the runway from its current length of 3,400 feet, to 4,600 feet. All of the current runway will also be repaved.

In addition, a new taxiway will be added along the whole runway, and the current concrete apron (plane access area) will be expanded and repaved as well.

The city’s share of the project will be an estimated $307,000.

The project will also mean the city will be purchasing some additional land to make space for the extended runway, and the area needed as a buffer around the runway.

And, it will mean the city will close 80th Street, as the new runway will cross it.Councilman Huisman said he had only recently decided to vote against the project, and said he now felt Blue Earth only needed the current 3,400 foot runway.

He said he heard from many of his constituents and most were not in favor of the expansion.

“It’s a ton of money for a few airplanes,” Huisman said. “I am not opposed to progress, we need to fix up the runway, but we are a rural community, and not a big city.”

Councilman Dan Brod agreed, saying he was in favor of paving the current runway, but did not see the need for the expansion.

“The average runway for cities our size is 3,900 feet, and most of them are larger towns than us,” Brod said. “A 3,400 foot runway is sufficient for us.”

Huisman, and others, also questioned why the airport usage survey numbers had been so inflated, and now were much lower.

“Why didn’t anyone on the airport commission question these grossly inflated numbers?” he asked. A more recent survey by Bolton and Menk showed a much lower potential usage of the airport than a survey conducted at the time the application for federal funding was made.

Councilman Rick Scholtes called the airport project an investment in the future.

“I looked at it as a positive economic cost value,” he said. “We can go from $200,000 to $300,000 local cost and get a big improvement in our airport.”

Citizens who were in attendance, at least those who spoke, were not in favor of the expansion.

Rodney Anderson reiterated his earlier concerns that there is an average of just one plane a day using the airport, and this did not warrant an extension.

Plus, he added, he and his neighbors use 80th Street far more than that.

“To use your terminology of ‘operations’ (referring to Bolton and Menk calling each take-off and landing an operation), then I had 910 operations on 80th Street,” Anderson said. “And my neighbor had more over 1,000.”

The council discussed having three options.

First, they could repave the current 3,400 foot runway, and add a taxiway. The cost would be $4.1 million with the city’s share at $206,750. The federal and state governments would pick up the rest.

Second, they could expand to 4,000 feet. The cost would be $5.7 million, the city’s share at $285,250.

Third, they could OK the proposed expansion to 4,600 feet. The cost would be $6.1 million, with the city paying $307,000. The city’s Airport Commission had recommended passing the full project. Four of the members of the commission were at the meeting, but none spoke.

Roetzel pointed out that the city had already authorized his firm of Bolton and Menk to proceed with developing plans and specs for a 4,600 runway project, and they had done so.

Plus, the city has entered into land purchase agreements for the necessary acres for expanding the runway.

And, he said, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had already approved their 95-percent cost share.

Roetzel said changing to a smaller plan could certainly be done, and the FAA had already agreed to fund whichever plan the city authorized.

“However, not going with the 4,600 runway extension means the city would drop to the bottom of the FAA funding list,” Roetzel said.

With the yes vote on Monday night, Roetzel says they will try and have bids out in January, and bids opened in February. The taxiway is planned for construction in 2010, the runway extension in 2011.

The council will have another opportunity to vote yes or no on the project once the bids come in, and need to be approved.