Airport’s federal funding slated to be stopped
Although the Lake Tahoe Airport has not officially heard the news from the Federal Aviation Administration, representatives from that organization confirmed Thursday that federal funding for staffing the airport’s control tower will be discontinued effective March 1.
The FAA has been pumping about $200,000 per year into the airport to keep the tower in operation. Its decision came after the FAA completed a cost-benefit analysis of the airport which apparently showed more cost than benefit in funding the tower.
“I am writing to urge that the Federal Aviation Administration keep its air traffic control tower open at the Lake Tahoe Airport,” wrote Dianne Feinstein in a September letter to Rodney Slater, secretary of transportation.
Sen. Feinstein, D-Calif., cited safety as a main reason for continued federal monies staffing the control tower.
She wrote of her trip to the airport last summer with Vice President Al Gore and the difficulty pilots incur in landing due to the mountainous terrain and altitude, especially during the winter months.
“I believe that budget cuts at the FAA should not come at the expense of safety,” the senator said in her letter. “In the case of the Lake Tahoe Airport, safety considerations clearly warrant a continued FAA presence.”
Janis Brand, airport management assistant, insists the funding cuts would not close the airport, but said it will have impacts in several areas.
Currently there is a push for commercial air service to return to the airport, including the retention of an aviation marketing strategist firm to solicit potential air-service providers.
The news of the funding cut came the day before Vesta Rea-Gaubert, of Vesta Rea and Associates, was to meet with various community leaders and organizations to brainstorm for ideas to attract a commercial service provider.
One idea Rea-Gaubert said was not an option was closing the airport. She said if this happens, the city and El Dorado County could be responsible, by federal law, for expenses totaling $11 million that the federal government put into the airport since its inception in 1971.
The meeting, which is Phase II of the marketing firm’s scope of services – “public outreach,” is set for Friday at 9 a.m. at the Lake Tahoe Airport.
The airport has been without a commercial airline since 1996, but Rea-Gaubert said, before learning officially of the funding cuts, that service would likely be in place at the airport within 10 to 12 months.
Brand said that with the cuts and no subsidies from regional government, the airport would not be able to house a commercial provider which uses jet airplanes.
“It would be nearly impossible to get jet service in here,” Brand said.
Commercial providers which use propeller and turboprop planes could still be an option.
The funding cuts would also impact existing air services, such as United Parcel Service deliveries and daily bank business, when inclement weather threatened the region.
“In the absence of air traffic controllers, there is no provision for timely weather observations,” Brand wrote in an open letter Wednesday to the Lake Tahoe community soliciting its support.
Brand said that many airports throughout the country operate without air traffic control. But, she said, not only would the tower be a competitive advantage for attracting a commercial service provider, it would also help in the areas of safety and operational ease.
Brand said she understood the FAA’s position that it was not cost effective to operate the tower.
Mitch Barker, public affairs officer for the FAA, confirmed this Thursday, saying an option still open for the airport is to fund the tower locally.
“You tell me where this community has $200,000 to fund the tower,” Brand said. “We don’t.”
Councilman Tom Davis said the city will not allow funding for the tower to stand in the way of the retention of a commercial air service provider, although he admitted it doesn’t appear likely the city has the funds to make up the $200,000 the FAA will cut.
The FAA stopped staffing the Lake Tahoe Airport in 1996. At that time, Barton ATC International, one of a handful of private air traffic control services, took over the tower, producing a savings of about $200,000 for the administration.
Previously, staffing with government air traffic controllers cost twice as much.
“It seems ludicrous that the FAA would consider closing its air traffic control tower there – particularly when the agency has already saved $200,000 a year by contracting out the tower’s operations,” Feinstein said in her letter to Slater.
Feinstein, Rep. John Doolittle, R-Roseville, and Nevada Senators Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, both democrats, have expressed their support to Brand and Davis for the continued funding of the airport.
Davis confirmed all of these politicians were behind continued FAA funding for the airport, as well as Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.
“They’re all committed to do what they can to keep the funding,” said Davis, jesting that the city has lined up nearly a quorum of United States senators to back the continued federal funding.
“Four out of 100 isn’t bad,” Davis said.
Brand said any changes to the FAA decision will have to be done through the Department of Transportation or through congressional legislation, so the backing may well be needed.
Also, a trip to Washington in February for City Manager Kerry Miller and Davis is a possibility. The pair would lobby for continued funding.
“Kerry and I may run up to Washington in a couple weeks,” Davis said.
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