Legislators suggest county pick up tab
By NANCY MADSEN
TIMES STAFF WRITER
THURSDAY, JANUARY 13, 2011
After years of waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve plans and grants to extend Watertown International Airport’s Runway 10-28 from 5,000 to 7,000 feet, a couple of Jefferson County legislators want the county to complete the final 1,000-foot extension.
Michael W. Behling, R-Adams, and Robert D. Ferris, R-Watertown, said during Tuesday night’s Planning and Development Committee that they’d like to accelerate the growth at the airport by taking on the rest of the construction.
The county took control of the airport, near Dexter, in 2006. Through different carriers, the airport has had huge swings in the number of enplanements, or departing passengers.
The passenger numbers determine the annual allotment the FAA gives the airport. With current traffic, the airport receives about $150,000 per year. With 10,000 enplanements, it would receive about $1 million. The county spends about $600,000 on the airport each year.
“We can’t get more enplanements until we get a carrier in there that can carry more passengers, and we can’t do that until the runway is longer,” Mr. Behling said Wednesday. “Let’s bond, take the chance and get out there, because we’re either in the plane business or we’re not.”
He cited statistics from 1960, when the airport had 20,000 enplanements through two carriers.
Mr. Ferris agreed.
“We’re waiting for other people to build an airport for us,” he said. “If it’s really going to help us, let’s get behind it and make it happen.”
He suggested that a larger carrier, seeing the demand for airport service in Watertown, would put in a larger airport facility for the county. The county charges carriers less to land in Watertown than the fees that are charged at Hancock International Airport in Syracuse, and passengers park free, he said.
“Are we going to wait three years or build our own?” he said.
The final 1,000 feet has already been designed, so the installation cost likely would be between $3 million and $5 million. Other legislators said they believe the county is using the most cost-effective means now to expand the airport.
County leaders said being tied to other small airports, Massena and Ogdensburg, has hurt the Essential Air Service bids in the past. In the upcoming round, Watertown will be out for bid alone.
“The 6,000 feet we have is going to accommodate the 32- to 50-seat aircraft that are likely to be introduced in the next round of bids,” ad hoc airport committee Chairman Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “With the climate right now in the mandates from Albany, we don’t need to appropriate $4 to $5 million to do that 1,000 feet.”
The only exception in his mind would be if a carrier would guarantee bringing in larger jets in exchange for building the extension.
“If we had someone knocking the door down, with the opportunity for a bigger jet to come in here, I may not be opposed to forwarding that money,” he said.
Highway Department Superintendent James L. Lawrence Jr., who also oversees airport operations, said the 50-seat planes can land comfortably in any weather on the 6,000-foot runway. Those airplanes would have a range as far as Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
Fellow ad hoc committee member Philip N. Reed Sr., R-Fishers Landing, said the FAA process allows the county to build the business.
“It makes sense to do it in increments,” he said. “It’s not fair to ask the local taxpayers to back the whole project, even if the FAA allows us to do it.”
With the FAA grants, the federal government pays 95 percent of the cost, the state pays 2.5 percent and the county pays 2.5 percent.
“Why take $3 million to $4 million out of the county pocket when we can get money from the federal and state government?” asked Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, chairwoman of the board. “Paying 2.5 percent is a good deal.”
Representatives of Jefferson County Farm Bureau also asked the committee to push the state Legislature to restore funding from $400,000 to $3 million to the New York Farm Viability Institute, which awards grants to practical agricultural research and development projects throughout the state.
“We strongly believe in agriculture that we can help restore New York state to what it should be,” county agricultural coordinator Jay M. Matteson said.
The committee passed a resolution doing just that. The full board will consider it at 7 p.m. Feb. 1 in the Legislature’s chambers, 195 Arsenal St.
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