Pitkn County study pitches longer airport runway
ASPEN – Adding 1,000 feet onto the Aspen airport runway will bring more than 11,000 extra visitors and pump at least $29 million into the area annually, according to a study performed by Pitkin County.
The draft environmental assessment (EA) of the runway extension claims the project will spark increased tourism without being a growth generator. The study claims the longer runway, by itself, wouldn’t spur enough growth to require additional lodging in the towns or overwhelm the intersections serving the airport from Highway 82.
The EA was funded by the Federal Aviation Administration and performed by consultants hired by Pitkin County. The study is a requirement for the expenditure of federal funds. It will be unveiled to the public in an open house Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Pitkin County Library. A public hearing will follow at 6:45 p.m.
The draft EA can be viewed on the documents page of http://www.aspenairportplanning.com.
The project is somewhat controversial because the public has been leery of runway expansions at the airport. A proposal promoted by the Aspen Skiing Co. in the mid-1990s to strengthen the runway to allow larger and heavier jets to land was soundly defeated by county voters.
This project would lengthen the runway from about 7,000 to 8,000 feet, but it wouldn’t alter the weight restriction or allow operations by larger commercial aircraft. Instead, the project is being touted as a way to better utilize existing commercial flights.
The Canadair Regional Jet 700 used by United Express can’t always be fully loaded with passengers, cargo and fuel when summer temperatures exceed a certain level, the study says.
Between March 1, 2007, and Feb. 29, 2008, United Express operator SkyWest Airlines reported it couldn’t offer 9,575 seats for sale on scheduled flights because of anticipated weight restrictions, the EA says.
The consultants concluded that the number of unavailable seats because of payload issues could swell to nearly 20,000 by the year 2027, based on increased activity at the airport.
“The consequence of the payload restriction is that airlines are not able to efficiently serve the air travel demand for the Aspen area,” the EA says. “Passengers have the ability to arrive in Aspen, but not depart as desired. As a result, most passengers would not purchase an air travel ticket if they are unable to complete their return.
“In these cases, passengers would fly to Denver and then drive to Aspen [or] choose to fly to another nearby airport and then drive to Aspen, or not travel.”
Longer runway would ease problem, EA says
The study claims that extending the runway by 1,000 feet would ease and possibly eliminate the payload problem. Making most or all seats available would generate an estimated 11,037 additional visitors in 2012, and the number would grow to 14,469 in year 2027, the last projection in the study.
The EA assumed not all of the available seats will be filled. Sometimes seats simply aren’t sold. The EA also relied on previous studies that show 73.5 percent of commercial airlines passengers using the Aspen airport are visitors.
The additional visitors would spend an estimated $29.3 million in Aspen-Snowmass in 2012, the study says. The spending would swell to $38.37 million by 2027. The spending projections were based on five-day stays and historic spending data determined for a 2008 state study called, “The Economic Impact of Airports in Colorado.”
The study flirts with danger by showing how the longer runway could increase tourism to the Aspen area. The Pitkin County commissioners have indicated in the past they would be wary of the project if it is deemed a growth generator.
The study argues that the runway extension won’t create growth even though it will enable more visitors access to town. The number of new visitors through 2027 won’t exceed the number of known new short-term tourist units planned for development in Aspen over that same, the study says.
The study also downplays the traffic generated by the additional visitors. By 2027, the additional visitors will generate 240,214 additional “vehicles movements” in the upper valley. “This equates to approximately an additional 11,443 vehicles annually – 60 additional per day and approximately 10 additional vehicles per hour,” the study says.
That amount of traffic isn’t high enough to degrade the level of service at any of the airport intersections, based on consultations with the county public works director, the study claims.
The project is estimated to cost $17.5 million in 2010. The Federal Aviation Administration will consider covering the majority of it. Matching funds would be required from Pitkin County, which might require issuance of general obligation bonds, the study says. No specifics were offered on the county’s share of the funding.
Public comments can be given verbally at Wednesday’s meeting or they can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. The comment period ends May 24.
The county wants the FAA’s blessing – and funding – for the project so it can move forward with construction.