Guest view: Time to discuss Lake Tahoe Airport’s future
There is simply no good excuse that the City of South Lake Tahoe can offer for clear-cutting 387 trees at the Lake Tahoe Airport, without bothering to seek the same sort of permits expected of everyone in the Basin to help Keep Tahoe Blue. Had the city not been stopped, they were reportedly planning to cut hundreds more in an area that is eroding badly into the Upper Truckee River – which already carries more sediment to Lake Tahoe than any other tributary.
It should be noted that the tree cut happened just downstream and across the river from a proposed multi-million dollar Upper Truckee River restoration project, funded by taxpayers by way of the California Tahoe Conservancy. In other words, undoing with the right hand what the left hand is busy doing.
If safety was such a compelling reason to cut the erosion-preventing trees, than why didn’t city leaders simply request the necessary permits? After all, the California Department of Aeronautics gave the city six weeks to take action – more than enough time to notify TRPA and Lahontan of its intentions. It is unlikely that these agencies would have denied action to address a legitimate safety threat, but it is likely that consultation with them would have helped to reduce environmental impacts.
But the issues that have come to light in the wake of the airport clear-cut beg a broader question: Are all of the airport operations worth the environmental, economic and social costs to local taxpayers, the community and Lake Tahoe? If flights in and out of Tahoe are as unsafe as we are told, is the best solution then to have them fly into safer airports like Reno? Are there better uses for of at least part of the nearly $600,000/year annual taxpayer subsidy for airport operations?
Several writers to these pages, including retired assistant airport manager Janis Brand, have attempted to blame TRPA and/or the League to Save Lake Tahoe for the airport’s woes. But the city has tried unsuccessfully for a decade to recruit and retain commercial service, because airlines have not found enough passengers or made enough money here.
If anything, the League and TRPA have been too lenient by not taking action against the airport for flagrantly violating the terms of the Master Plan Settlement Agreement. Large and loud corporate jets likely break the legal noise limits on a regular basis, based on a review of manufacturer specifications. But since the airport noise monitors have been broken for years, and the city doesn’t keep a list of aircraft that exceed noise standards as required under the settlement agreement, no enforcement action has been taken against violators by the city. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Given industry trends toward concentrating service at larger, regional airports (like Reno) and eliminating service in small markets (like Elko, Nev., which recently lost service), it does not appear likely that commercial service will become viable at the Lake Tahoe Airport anytime soon. Nonetheless, the city has recently been pressing TRPA to issue a new permit for commercial service. TRPA has rightly informed the city that it must first fix their noise monitors and update its Airport Master Plan.
Even if an airline expressed interest in the local airport, and the city received a permit for commercial service, is that what local residents and visitors want? Would you rather subsidize noisy corporate and/or commercial jets, or use the money for things like sidewalks, bike trails, more snowplows for city streets, environmental improvements or a town center?
Some airport proponents argue that promoting air travel to Tahoe would produce an environmental benefit because visitors would arrive without a car. There are two major flaws in that argument: First, most air travelers rent a car when they land; Second, the total amount of nitric oxide and other pollutants emitted by regional jets at take-off and landing would be far greater than if each passenger had instead driven to the Basin alone. Planes are big polluters, and definitely NOT part of the environmental transportation solution for Lake Tahoe.
In response to prompting from TRPA to determine whether the airport runway can be reduced to allow for greater Upper Truckee River restoration while still meeting the needs of the airport, the city hired a consultant who concluded that the runway can’t be narrowed or shortened one inch from its current length of 8,544 feet. But the Jackson Hole, Wyo., airport accommodates 737s at a slightly higher elevation with just 6,300 feet of runway. Aspen’s runway is 7,004 feet long at 7,815 feet of elevation, and they also have commercial service. Go figure.
The time has come for a new public conversation about the best future uses of the airport and surrounding meadow. In fact, there’s a lively discussion happening on this paper’s Web site right now (www.tahoedailytribune.com, scroll down to “Top commented stories this week”). I look forward to reading your ideas. After all, it’s your community, your taxes and your Lake Tahoe.
– John Friedrich is program director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe.