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Was airport decision correct? Only time will tell for sure

By Staff | Nov 2, 2009

Well, the Blue Earth City Council finally bit the bullet and made a tough decision –  to proceed with an expansion of the runway at the Blue Earth Airport.

They debated long and hard whether to just repave the existing runway, or go with a 1,200 foot expansion. Several councilmen explained their reasoning, both for going with the full project, and for scaling back. With members of the public also weighing in on the debate, things could have turned nasty at Monday’s meeting. They did not. Everyone had a chance to speak, and no one got out of control.

Whether the council made the right decision is something only residents of Blue Earth in the future will be able to tell for sure.

For now, it is certain that the airport is going to get a lot necessary improvements done – most of it for safety reasons.

The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) spends a bunch of money every year helping to bring airports all over the country up to modern standards. They don’t use federal income tax dollars to do this. Most of their funding is from surcharges on airline tickets and on aviation fuel.

That is why they can afford to put in 95 percent of the cost of an airport project.

Expanding the runway. Adding a taxiway. Putting in new runway lights. All of it is done for safety, not for looks.

The only real question in the Blue Earth project was the length of the runway. Not being an aviation expert, I wouldn’t have a clue how long the runway should be. The airport commission studied the material more than anyone else, and they came up with 4,600 feet as the optimum length. Others disagreed, saying a shorter runway would work just fine for a small town.

Blue Earth is not alone in this airport controversy. Down the road (or freeway, actually) is Luverne. They recently completed a very similar project for their airport.

They repaved, and expanded their runway. But there were those who had raised objections to the project.

They had to close a rural road to do it. There were citizens against it, and some of them cited the fact that there was a bigger, better airport just over in Worthington, and an even larger one to the west in Sioux Falls. The expansion was going to cost the local taxpayers $300,000 as the local share of the project. There was one major business (a regional insurance office headquartered in Luverne) which the airport would benefit, because they have a corporate jet and would use the airport the most.

Exactly the same scenario here. Just substitute BEVCOMM as the local business.

There were some differences in the Luverne project. Their runway was woefully out-of-date, and only 2,400 feet long – compared to the current one in Blue Earth which is 3,400 feet. Their runway was not set in the right direction, and had to be ‘turned.’ They used the current runway as a taxiway, and built an all new one.

They also, like Blue Earth, did a study on proposed airport usage, and tried to determine what length runway was necessary for new, small corporate jets to use. They came up with 4,200 feet. A study in Blue Earth came up with 4,600.

The city of Luverne also had to exercise ’eminent domain’ to acquire the necessary extra land for the airport, because local landowners wanted exorbitant prices as they tried to make a killing on the sale because the city needed the land. In Blue Earth, the city negotiated with local landowners.

Luverne’s project was completed in July, and a big dedication ceremony, complete with federal dignitaries, was held last month.

The result? Almost everyone is now pretty proud of the ‘new’ airport, and what it might mean for future economic development.

They also report some increase in airport usage, especially by planes which had used Pipestone or Worthington in the past. These include planes visiting local industries, and the hospital. The local officials feel they got a big project done with a relatively small local cost. If $300,000 can be called small.

Was it the right thing to do? Like in Blue Earth, only time will tell for sure.