Why we fly to Washington, D.C. | VailDaily.com

Why we fly to Washington, D.C.

Tom Stone

Each year at the beginning of March, the county commissioners venture back to Washington, D.C., to attend the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference.

Besides valuable networking with other commissioners nationwide, we have found the opportunity to visit with our congressional delegation and their key staff members to be quite valuable.

This year, Michael Gallagher and I presented four key issues to both of our senators and almost all seven congressmen.

First on our list of objectives was a request for an appropriation of $4.9 million for radar at our regional airport.

Sen. Campbell, as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, was and continues to be our key advocate for funding requests. He was responsible for the $2 million funding of the new Instrument Landing System going in this summer at our airport, as well as the funding for the rehabilitation of the Red Cliff arch bridge.

We are, of course, very sorry to see him retire. His staff did, however, commit to funding of the radar before Ben leaves office. The radar system (Air Traffic Control Beacon Interrogator Radar BI-6) will help to relieve airport delays and air space saturation that impacts our capacity as well as enhancing safety issues.

Our airport accommodates nearly 450,000 passengers annually between airline customers and executive aircraft. In periods of high demand and poor weather, the FAA imposes the Special Traffic Management Program (STMP) to meter traffic into Eagle, Aspen and Rifle. Aspen receives at least 50 percent more STMP slots than Eagle, primarily because Aspen has radar.

During the 2002-03 ski season, the STMP was in place for 83 days, in which Eagle averaged 475 private flights turned away. Assuming three visitors on each aircraft, they would have spent approximately $1,600 during their visit to the county, so the community lost approximately $2.3 million in off-airport spending. This combined with the on-airport missed revenue of over $675,000 leaves an economic impact on Eagle County of nearly $3 million lost.

Next on our agenda was an issue of more national concern than local. I am referring to the Colorado Air National Guard High Altitude Training Site (HAATS) located at our airport. HAATS has the distinction of being the only U.S. military site to train helicopter pilots to safely operate at high altitude in a power limited, hostile environment like those found in Afghanistan, in which our troops are now flying and fighting.

HAATS also trains all active and reserve U.S. aircrews, as well as foreign military students from five NATO nations.

We benefit locally since HAATS aircraft and crews routinely perform search and rescue missions in the Colorado Mountains, as well as wildfire water bucket operations.

The issue is that the future utilization of HAATS essential training is uncertain because the present Vietnam era helicopters (Huey and Kiowa aircraft that are frequently older than the pilots in training) are obsolete and were programmed to be retired in 2003. No replacement aircraft were or are programmed for HAATS use.

Funding is needed for a requisite number of modernized helicopters (UH-60 Blackhawk, CH-47 Chinook and AH-64 Apache). Furthermore,

HAATS training must receive priority in the ongoing Army transformation plan to ensure that our combatant commanders are provided with trained and ready troops, who are able to accomplish their mission in the lethal high, hot and heavy environments of today.

A more local but still national issue is our continued effort to solve the sand sedimentation problem on Vail Pass that is ruining Black Gore Creek. Several possible funding options currently exist that we are pursuing. Michael and I encouraged support of a critical new provision included in the SAFETEA Transportation Bill (S 1072) of 2003 that will set aside funds to clean up the impacts of pollutants from federal highways entering adjacent waterways. Another less likely pot of money would be a special line item appropriation of $20 million added to the CDOT Transportation Enhancement budget.

As usual, we asked for the support of funding in the federal fiscal year 2005 DOT Appropriations Act for the Colorado Transit Coalition (CTC). Each year, ECO Transit joins with the CTC to request federal funding for statewide transit projects. This year ECO Transit is requesting approximately $1,160,000 to replace three buses, add on-board video surveillance and perform a comprehensive mid-life overhaul on several older buses in the fleet. We have historically been successful at this request and expect that trend to continue.

I once heard someone say that they like to go to Washington to “visit their money.” Hopefully, we were successful in bringing some of those hard-earned dollars back to benefit our community.

Tom Stone is an Eagle County commissioner.

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