Airport ‘bottom line’ debated
As debate roils over the Lake Tahoe Airport, several community leaders are pushing for a larger discussion of how to use the airport or the land that it sits on.
With the triple bottom line a hot topic, the Tahoe Daily Tribune spoke with business and conservation leaders to see how or if the concept applies to the airport. The triple bottom line posits that good decisions must have a benefit for the community, environment and the economy.
Business leaders said the airport is a perfect test case for the triple bottom line: it could reduce traffic, enhance the economy through increased tourism dollars, and provide an emergency staging and evacuation ground in the case of a large fire. They believe no resort community can thrive without its own airport.
The League to Save Lake Tahoe said the airport fails all three tests, forcing the community to put up with noise annoyance and a taxpayer subsidy. The League alleges flying on a plane creates the equivalent emissions of thousands of miles in a vehicle.
The Sierra Club dismissed the triple bottom line as flawed, but is OK with general aviation at the airport as long as it meets noise standards.
John Singlaub, the head of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which governs development here, has pushed the triple bottom line to a forum charged with hashing out Tahoe’s next regional plan, called Pathway 2007.
Singlaub has eyes for restoring the Upper Truckee River, which delivers the most sediment into Lake Tahoe. But he also believes a vibrant general aviation, even commercial, airport is possible.
“We can reconfigure and shrink the runway to accomplish river restoration while still being able to accommodate commercial air service,” he said.
That idea doesn’t sit so well with South Lake Tahoe City Councilman Mike Weber, who said the 1,400 feet Singlaub proposes to eliminate is a small fraction of the river’s watershed. Several river restoration projects are already under way.
“Nobody is going to convince me that shortening the runway is going to change the watershed dramatically,” he said.
In the year before the airport tower closed in 2004, 19,000 flights were recorded coming in and out of Lake Tahoe Airport, according to Weber.
The airport is subsidized by the city by $500,000 per year, but Weber says that’s made up for by the estimated $11 million to $26 million those 19,000 flights bring into the economy. The numbers are based on two people per flight spending $300 to $700 per day, which Weber says are national industry estimates for airplane flyers.
The League’s main contention is that these visitors may come to Tahoe anyway.
“If you are saying it provides a benefit, you have to be alleging these are people who wouldn’t have come to Tahoe if it weren’t for the Lake Tahoe Airport,” said John Friedrich.
Heavenly Mountain Resort has seen one million visitors for the past two seasons, according to CEO Blaise Carrig. Half of those are “destination” travelers coming from far away places like New York or Chicago, 10 percent are local, and 40 percent are from Los Angeles or the Bay Area.
Carrig sees the potential to fly in a portion of regional visitors and put them on public transportation as soon as they step off the tarmac.
“You just can’t rule out that technology is going to improve air transit,” Carrig said. “I think jets are going to be quieter and they are going to get fuel efficiency. There will be a nexus at some point where people say regional air is a better way to bring people in than automobiles.”
While business leaders look to other resort airports like Aspen as models for success, the League, Singlaub and Carrig all saw Reno/Tahoe International Airport playing an increasing role in Tahoe tourism.
“When they finish I-580 (Carson City bypass), the casinos will be a 45-minute drive from the Reno airport,” Singlaub said. “On a bad winter day, the casinos are about 45 minutes from the Lake Tahoe Airport.”
Weber said with the population around Tahoe expected to increase by 20 million in the next 20 years – inevitably leading to more traffic – the desire to fly from Los Angeles or the Bay Area will only increase.
“If we are truly looking at 20 years into the future, not having this airport as a transportation solution to the basin is insane,” he said. “Show me another asset anywhere that has more potential for achieving the true triple bottom line.”
What they’re saying about the airport’s future
Here are some other quotes regarding the airport from our conversations with community leaders:
John Singlaub, TRPA:
“They can start by creating a first-class general aviation airport that can serve the needs of the community. But let’s also take advantage of re-creating the first-class fly fishing river that the Upper Truckee River was before they built the airport.”
Carl Ribaudo, Strategic Marketing Group:
“We know from the TMDL (a pollution study) that certainly the Truckee River is a problem area (for lake Tahoe’s clarity).
“Can we deal with that problem area from an engineering level, or is the issue at the airport clouded at an emotional level?”
Mike Weber, South Lake Tahoe City Councilman:
“The bottom line is people take a position that they don’t want the airport and then they try to justify it by logic, and the logic is flawed, and they make issues out of non issues.”
Michael Donahoe, co-chair, Tahoe Area Sierra Club:
“The airport is a good example of how the triple bottom line is a flawed and dangerous concept. Instead of being used to increase people’s awareness that sustainable communities and economies are absolutely dependent on the environment, it’s being used to push TRPA to lower its environmental standards.”
John Friedrich, League to Save Lake Tahoe:
“The most important thing is to have a discussion of all the costs and benefits.
“The point of democracy and a public discussion is to see where that leads. We would raise our concerns, but we are trusting that the public dialogue will take it where it needs to go. We can’t control that.”
“We are saying it’s more important what the larger public thinks than what the League thinks, or what the TRPA thinks, or what the city thinks.”
Blaise Carrig, CEO of Heavenly:
“There’s a lot of good ingredients in the plans, but the plans aren’t fully baked. The airport can serve the triple bottom line if all parties put down their swords for a bit and work on the planning.”
Duane Wallace, president of South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce:
“Once we get over the war of shutting it down or leaving it open, and decide to make it the best, safest, environmentally sound airport in any mountain community, we’ll be on the right track.”