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Airport expansion plans remain uncertain

While the county board of commissioners voted to kill a proposed runway expansion at the Carroll County Regional Airport in January, a new master plan could determine that a longer runway is necessary to handle different planes.

The Carroll County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 Thursday for Delta Airport Consultants to create a plan that breaks down its expected cost for developing a new airport master plan. The master plan, which takes three to four years to complete, includes interviews with airport-based businesses as well as analysis of the types of planes now using the airport and the kinds of planes that will be using the airport in the future.

Based on all the information gathered, Delta will determine the airport's "critical aircraft," which is the largest plane that can be reasonably expected to use the airport in an ongoing capacity in the future.

In 2007, when the last master plan was developed, Delta identified the Gulfstream V as the airport's critical aircraft. As a result, the county proposed extending the runway by 1,300 feet to 6,400 feet to accommodate the type of aircraft that Delta anticipated the airport will be seeing in the future.

Commissioners on the current five-member board feared that extending the runway would bring larger planes and additional problems, so they voted 3-2 against the project in January. Both 3-2 votes had Commissioners Doug Howard, R-District 5, and Dave Roush, R-District 3, in favor of extending the runway.

Despite the board's action, Delta could determine that planes which require longer runways may be the airport's critical aircraft in the new master plan, according to Jeff Topper, deputy director of the county Department of Public Works. The board will have no authority to change or suggest a different critical aircraft to be in the plan, Topper said.

The board, however, can choose not to approve the plan. If that happens, Topper said, the board will not be in compliance with its current airport master plan. As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Maryland Aviation Administration may choose to withhold funding for future capital improvement projects, Topper said.

Currently, the board is planning to resurface the 5,100-foot runway for about $5 million in 2017. The county would only have to pay 5 percent, or $250,000, for the runway repaving if it receives funding from both the FAA and MAA. Or it can be on the hook for the entire amount if the county is not in compliance with its goals in the airport master plan.

Howard supported extending the airport runway and talked about the consequences of the board's decision if it chooses to not extend the runway. The board still has the option to keep the current master plan and move forward with the extension, Topper said.

Howard and county staff brought up a number of different factors for the board to consider on Thursday.

Old cost vs. new cost

One of the biggest things that's changed since January is the estimated cost of the runway extension project, Howard said.

The commissioners that voted against the expansion cited the total cost of the project as a reason they voted against it. The FAA estimated that the 1,300-foot runway extension would cost approximately $74 million, with $1.8 million, or 2.5 percent, covered by the county.

The FAA has updated its original cost estimates for the projects and has since lowered them to approximately $52 million, Topper said. The development in airplane technology has also enabled the FAA to remove its requirement of having a ground-based landing system at the airport. That lowers to total cost of the extension to $47 million.

All together, the project would cost the county $2.35 million, since it no longer qualifies for the 2.5 percent rate it was being charged before the decision was made. No longer requiring the landing system also saves the county $25,000 a year.

The FAA and MAA funding for the runway extension project has already been allocated to other projects at another airport by now, Topper said. If the board wanted the FAA and MAA to offer money to extend the runway again, the board would have to wait another year to reapply for the capital improvement funds, Topper said.

"[At that point] all that would have been lost would be time," Topper said. "The uncertainty would be getting that money back again."

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Economic impacts

Howard also expressed concern that the board was putting a large financial burden on taxpayers by not building a larger runway. Two companies had expressed interest in remaining and/or expanding operations at the airport if the runway was extended to allow for larger planes.

The board's decision to not increase the runway gives those companies reasons to leave the airport, Howard said. The county revenue lost by those businesses potentially leaving would result in a $265,000 annual loss, he said.

Protection zone complications

The FAA is changing guidelines that will increase the size of the runway protection zone at airports, Topper said. The Arc of Carroll County building, located on Kriders Church Road near the south end of the runway, will now be inside the new protection zone if the runway remains the same size and in the same location, Topper said.

The runway protection zone requires that there be no occupied structures within it, he said. The runway extension plan moved the runway 250 feet west and 600 feet north so that the Arc building would not be in the zone, Topper said.

"I've got zero willingness to force The Arc to move," said Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, R-District 2.

Howard said that if the board wants to continue with its plan to not have the runway extension, the runway will have to be moved so that it doesn't interfere with The Arc building.

While it's unclear, the FAA could pay for The Arc to leave their building and move somewhere outside of the protection zone, Topper said.

The FAA should be responsible for working with The Arc to handle the issues related to the protection zone, according to Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, R-District 1. The board, she said, should not be in the middle of an issue created by FAA guidelines.

Selling the airport

Frazier suggested getting out of the transportation business and selling the airport to a private company. The board unanimously voted to direct staff to analyze the airport enterprise funds to determine the viability of selling the airport to the private sector.

If the airport is to be sold, Topper said the county would have to pay back millions of dollars to the FAA that it's used for land acquisition and other projects at the airport over the years.

Future actions

Delta will develop its initial work plan and bring it to the board for approval sometime in August, Topper said. The board will then vote to accept the work plan and have Delta begin developing a new master plan.

Developing a master plan will cost approximately $500,000 and take three to four years. After the master plan is done, an environmental assessment of the airport must be completed. Topper said it will cost approximately $1 million to complete the environmental assessment.

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