Airport interchange: Who should pay?
EAGLE COUNTY ” If Eagle County wants an airport interchange any time soon, Eagle County will likely have to pay for it.
The state’s transportation department expects local governments to contribute at least some of the cost of building the interchange that would connect travelers directly to the Eagle County Regional Airport from I-70.
Plans have been in the works since the early 1990s, and many local officials expected the project to be paid for entirely with state money. The interchange was once considered a priority by the state because increasing the use of the airport would help alleviate traffic on I-70 through Denver and the mountains.
News that local towns will have to dig into their own pockets is disappointing, said Eagle Town Manager Willy Powell. The towns that would benefit the most from the interchange ” Eagle and Gypsum ” don’t particularly benefit from the airport, he said.
“We are the lone community who experiences significantly more impact than we do benefit,” Powell said.
“We’ve been waiting patiently for the day it would break ground,” said Gypsum Town Manager Jeff Schroll. “I just can’t figure out how a priority project keeps getting shoved down the ladder and down the ladder.”
Paying the price
Right now airport passengers must drive on U.S. Highway 6 through Eagle or Gypsum to get to I-70.
Building the interchange will cost about $68 million in 2009 ” the earliest state transportation officials believe it could be built, and that’s if local governments are willing to pitch in some money to get it done.
County and state transportation officials intend to figure out how much each Eagle County community should pitch in, said Helen Migchelbrink, the county’s lead engineer. The study will look at how much each community benefits from the airport and how much money each community should contribute.
Determining who would benefit most from the interchange, and who should pay for it, could be two different things.
While sales tax on car rentals by the airport account for more than 50 percent of Gypsum’s sales tax revenues, the town’s budget is considerably smaller than those of the upvalley communities. The town’s projected sales tax collection for 2005 is about $1.4 million ” “a drop in the bucket” compared to the cost of the project, Schroll said.
The town already plans to use sales tax money to pay for a recreation center approved by voters in November.
“I just don’t know how big of a player I’m expected to be,” Schroll said.
Eagle officials estimate that by 2010 about 27,000 trips will be made daily on Highway 6 if no interchange is built. By 2025, that number will reach nearly 66,000 trips a day. All on a two-lane road that runs through town.
But all that traffic on Highway 6 has been good for business, said Chris Ryan, owner of the Grand Avenue Grill in Eagle on Highway 6.
“It’s been a huge increase in business for us,” Ryan said. “A lot of people get off the plane and are starving, so they just pop right in.”
Ryan has no illusions about where most of the airport’s customers are heading: to the ski resorts in Vail and Beaver Creek. The interchange actually could hurt her business a little because it would route traffic away from her restaurant, Ryan said.
Eagle already has a list of road improvement projects needed to meet the increasing traffic just from population growth ” which was estimated to be 16 percent just in the last year, Powell said.
“We could never see our way clear in supporting an airport interchange,” Powell said. “We need to fund our own capital projects.”
Nevertheless, only Eagle and Gypsum ” and Eagle County ” were represented at a recent meeting with transportation officials to discuss the interchange. Those not invited ” Vail, Beaver Creek, Avon and Edwards ” are the “primary beneficiaries of the airport,” Powell said.
“They should have been at the table,” Schroll added.
Schroll and Powell are skeptical that any upvalley communities would be willing to pitch in significantly. But Dave Pease, general manager of the Marriott Vail Mountain Resort, thinks all local communities should consider helping build the interchange.
“I think anything we can do to facilitate customers getting to and from the airport is a very good thing,” Pease said.
County Commissioner Tom Stone said he is skeptical of any effort to round up a lot of local funds for the project. A better idea, he said, would be to appeal for federal funding through local representatives.
“That still would be very difficult to achieve,” he said. “The problem is the price tag on the project is so big. I’m certainly in support of exploring new options, but I don’t hold out a whole lot of hope.”
But the only other option is waiting until 2025 for state money, said County Commissioner Arn Menconi.
Migchelbrink, who has worked closely with state transportation officials on several county road projects, remains optimistic. The state has already put up $9 million to pay for design plans, which are almost done, she said.
“The design is really rounding third and heading for home,” Migchelbrink said.
Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or email@example.com.