FAA official to meet with city | TahoeDailyTribune.com

FAA official to meet with city

by Michael Schneider

Tonight airport and city officials will officially learn if the labors of senators, congressional representatives and city leaders bear fruit when the Federal Aviation Administration meets at the Lake Tahoe Airport.

Mitch Barker, FAA public affairs officer in Seattle, said Wednesday that the administration will stop funding the contract control tower on April 1 – not this Sunday, as it had previously planned.

This will give the city time to make the transition to local funding if they so chose, Barker said.

“It gives us some breathing time,” Council member Tom Davis said.

The FAA currently pours about $200,000 annually into the airport to staff the control tower with private controllers. It cut those costs from $400,000 when it recently switched to a privately staffed tower. But soon after, the FAA discovered that those savings weren’t good enough.

The FAA found, in a cost-benefit ratio analysis completed last November, that the Lake Tahoe Airport had fallen below a critical 1 percent level for funding.

Barker said the airport only garnered a .12 percent rating in the analysis.

“We have to operate under efficiency that generates benefits for the tax payers,” Barker said.

Since word spread of the analysis and its results last fall, Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin, Calif., Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., and Rep. John Ensign, R-Woodland, Calif., all wrote letters to the FAA and Department of Transportation urging continued funding of the airport.

In a Feb. 2 letter signed by all seven politicians to the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, “Tahoe’s congressional delegation,” as Doolittle referred the group, cited safety as a main concern.

“Termination of funding for the airport’s air tower will result in substantial safety risks for the airport’s users,” the politicians said in the letter.

Barker said there is no significant difference in the safety records when comparing the airports in the country with control towers to the 17,000 airports without a staffed tower.

Tahoe’s congressional delegation also cited concern over the increased vehicle traffic in the basin due to a lack of commercial service at the airport and its effect on the lake’s environment.

Lastly, the delegation told the Secretary of the DOT that discontinuing air traffic control would make acquiring a commercial provider for the airport difficult.

The airport has been without commercial passenger service for about two years. This lack of service significantly contributed to the low rating in the FAA’s cost-benefit analysis.

Barker said that not having a tower would not be a death blow for the airport’s efforts as more than 300 of the 17,000 airports that don’t have a tower have commercial airlines.

Mayor Pro-Tem Judy Brown said although the council hasn’t discussed its options as of yet, she hopes the tower will remain open.

“I imagine we would try to find a way,” said Brown. “I would like us to find a way.”

Brown said there are a lot of potential solutions to look at, including the possibility that other funding entities from the region could contribute funds.

Council member Margo Osti said there was also the option of increasing airport user fees to make up the federal deficit in funding.

Like recreation and planning fees, we make those the responsibility of those who sue the service,” Osti said. “The airport may be one as well.”

“A working airport would benefit us all,” Brown said.

After the April 1 deadline, if the city decides not to continue paying the staff with local funds, the FAA will still fund manual surface weather observations eight hours a day until an automated 24-hour surface weather observation system is in place, possibly as soon as June.

Tonights meeting begins at 7 at the Lake Tahoe Airport.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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