Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:22 pm
County officials debate options for upgrading airport
Federal regulators are requiring safety-related changes to the airstrip, and while those changes would be federally subsidized, Finley is reticent to commit to the county’s share of the tab.
Meanwhile, the county board was expected to vote Oct. 22 on an amendment to Finley’s proposed 2003 budget that would include some funds for an environmental assessment necessary for the required safety modifications to move forward. (Small Business Times went to press prior to the meeting.)
The situation is made even more uncomfortable by widespread misconceptions that measures to comply with federal regulations represent an expansion of the airport’s capacity, according to a representative of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
An order handed down by the FAA three years ago, according to airport manager Keith Markano, would require the airport to conform to longstanding rules on the size of the runway safety area (RSA) surrounding the county’s 5,800-foot-long runway.
RSAs are designed as buffers in the event an aircraft overshoots or does not stop successfully at the end of the runway.
Currently, roads penetrate the RSA at both the east and west ends of the Crites Field runway.
While federal and state dollars are available to fund the majority of the work necessary to resolve the problem, county approval is necessary to undertake the environmental assessments and traffic studies needed to determine whether closing, moving or tunneling Silvernail Road on the east and Pewaukee Road on the west will be suitable options.
Some county funds would also be involved – along with state and federal funds – to pay for the actual work to resolve the safety issue.
Airport managers have known of the requirements for RSAs since an FAA order came out on the topic in 1999.
Crites Field is required to maintain an RSA 1,000 feet beyond the end of the runway, including an 800-foot-wide object-free area. Currently, Crites Field’s RSA extends 300 feet beyond the end of the runway and is 500 feet wide.
Finley said he was not in favor of any project to enlarge the RSAs, including the environmental assessment and traffic study necessary to formulate options for removing roads.
According to Finley, the federal rules keep changing, and trying to keep up with them could become prohibitively expensive for the county.
County Board Chairman James Dwyer said Finley’s opposition may be grounded in the commonly held misconception that work to expand RSAs is part-and-parcel to expanding the runway.
"As soon as you think about moving a fence line, people think you are expand-ing the runway," Dwyer said. "There is quite a bit of misunderstanding among the locals. But it is certainly not the intention of the board to undertake any capital expansion. Finley’s opposition is based on the logic that because he is opposed to runway expansion, he is opposed to this."
Amendments made to the proposed budget by the county board’s executive committee have added $16,000 to the capital allocation to pay for 5% of the costs of an environmental assessment.
The price is lower than would normally be the case because Crites Field has leftover General Aviation Entitlement Funds from the FAA which must be used before the end of the fiscal year.
Regardless of the small cost of the environmental study, Finley focuses on the total costs of the long-term plan.
"I would prefer to work with the FAA on waivers before spending $52 million," Finley said. "In the last 10 years, we have expanded our airport to meet FAA guidelines. In another five to 10 years, the rules will change again."
According to the airport’s master plan, $52 million is the total amount for all work described in the long-range plan, including work that is not likely to be required within the next 20 years.
The projected cost of resolving the RSA problem is $13 million, and the county’s share after federal and state subsidy would be about $2.6 million
According to Markano and regulators, since the 1999 order from the FAA, waivers will no longer be granted to subsidize improvements to airports that do not meet RSA requirements.
Time is of the essence, according to Markano, as the FAA subsidizes airport improvement projects, including projects to rebuild existing facilities.
"An inventory of runway safety areas is done at that time," Markano said of subsidized projects. "The inventory must be done prior to any projects for runway construction or reconstruction involving federal funds. That includes restoring or altering the design life of pavement."
The federal government would contribute 60% of the cost of facilities improvement projects, the state would contribute 20% from an aviation-related revenue fund and the county would pick up the remaining 20% of the tab.
"We are looking at a seven to 10-year useful life on this runway before it needs to be reconstructed," Markano said. "But pretty substantial repairs will be needed in the next two years. Weather could make for triggering events. We could see some partial or full-depth repairs on joints in the next two to three years."
However, FAA Airport Improvement Program manager Sandy DePottey discounted Markano’s claim that runway repairs would be considered triggered events, forcing compliance with the RSA directive.
"We don’t get involved in maintenance and repairs – we just get involved in major rebuilding," DePottey said.
Furthermore, DePottey said that even if a federally funded improvement or rebuilding were planned, much of the work that comes with extension of the RSAs could be considered part of the federally funded work.
"If they trigger the RSA, they have to at least have started it," DePottey said. "It could be done as part of a construction project. It can all be included in the project, but it can’t be after."
Still a priority
While budget wrangling over RSA compliance at Crites Field continues, both Finley and Markano agree that the airport will play in important role in the future of the county.
According to the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeonautics (WBA), the direct effect of Crites Field on the Waukesha County economy was considerable in 2000. The airport operation employed 80 workers who were paid nearly $3.2 million. The airport generated more than $7.8 million in economic output.
According to Finley, as General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee continues to serve commercial and passenger traffic, "we have to make sure commercial and private planes can find alternate places to go. We want their No. 1 choice to be Crites Field. Let’s get the other, smaller, aircraft away from Mitchell Field."
However, Markano stressed that to continue to serve jet aircraft, including more than a dozen corporate jets which have hangars at Crites Field, the RSA issue must be dealt with.
"The only other alternative is to shorten the runway," Markano said. "If we do make it shorter – from 5,840 feet to, 4,600 feet – we really make it useless to jet aircraft."
The airport’s master plan recommends studies to determine the impacts of lengthening the runway to 7,000 feet.
"This is not the recommended course of action," Markano said of the runway lengthening project. "It should be considered in the future when the demand is there."
In the event of a runway extension, the master plan calls for an interim extension to 6,300 feet.
Both Markano and Finley agree that such an extension would not be required anytime soon.
"Under the best case scenario – which already hasn’t happened because of the economy – we would be looking at seven to 10 years for the interim expansion and several more years to pass for the final extension," Markano said.
"There is enough length of runway and land for hangars already," Finley said. "Short of Federal Express opening a hub – and I’m not saying that is about to happen – I believe that what is currently available will be sufficient for many years to come."
Oct. 25, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee