Dave Hedditch stands on the cracked taxiway of the Ravalli County Airport in Hamilton, points to the northeast and says, "You see that fence out there? That's where the new runway's gonna go."
Or will it? The need for a new runway at this small but busy general aviation airport has been recognized since the 1970s, but disagreements about where the runway should be built and how long it should be have prevented that need from ever being met. Now, there is a new proposal for improving the airport—and a new debate about whether it should be approved.
The latest controversy hinges on a single question: Should the runway remain 4,200 feet long or increase to 5,200 feet? Though it sounds like a technical distinction, people on both side of the issue say a lot is at stake in those 1,000 feet of pavement, from pilot safety to the very character of Ravalli County.
Last year, the Ravalli County Commission scrapped a plan for the airport that was on the cusp of being implemented. After extensive negotiation, the plan called to keep the runway at 4,200 feet but move it farther away from the current taxiway in order to meet Federal Aviation Administration safety standards.
County Commissioner Suzy Foss says they decided to abandon the plan due to concerns about whether it would adequately resolve the runway's safety issues and promote economic growth in the county. She calls it an expensive "Band-Aid" rather than a long-term solution.
The FAA agreed with the county commissioners, says Steve Engebrecht of the FAA's Northwest Mountain Region Airports District Office. At the commissioner's request, the FAA helped provide funding for a revised environmental assessment to consider the feasibility of moving the runway farther from the taxiway and extending it 1,000 feet. However, Engebrecht says, the FAA provided less for the study than normal, due to the county's history of indecision on the issue. The Ravalli County Aviation Safety Foundation made up the difference, using funding from undisclosed private sources. This May, the new EA was released.
Jack Tuholske, a Missoula lawyer representing nonprofit opposition group Informing Citizens Against Airport Runway Expansion, says there are important unanswered questions about who funded the new EA and how it was introduced to the public. The suspicion, he says, is private jet owners paid for it to help ensure a longer runway. He also says members of his group didn't learn about the EA "until a few days before the comment period was going to close." After Tuholske appealed for an extension, the FAA said the public could submit comments through the end of this month.
Tuholske says ICAARE's comments will point to a range of concerns not adequately addressed in the EA, including questions about the need for a longer runway, the potential for increased air pollution, the impact on local homeowners and the overall cost to taxpayers.
"For starters," Tuholske says, "we think you not only need to disclose the data and get better data but you need to do a full environmental impact statement, which then would trigger a much higher level involvement from other federal and state agencies. It would really shine a spotlight at this, and that's what needs to happen."
Chuck Dewitt, who sits on ICAARE's board and lives south of the airport, worries about how the expansion would allow bigger private jets to use the facility, thereby increasing noise and air pollution. He thinks it benefits the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the average citizen.
"If [the runway] grows to a mile long, I think we—the valley, the county commissioners—we will not have any control over the size and number of large jets that'll be landing there," Dewitt says. "It's inappropriate for the valley."
Foss disagrees, reiterating how an expanded runway is imperative for the safety and economic vitality of the county. She says a 5,200-foot runway would allow Forest Service air tankers to fight local wildfire more effectively and would foster economic growth by allowing people and goods to move more easily into Hamilton. And it wouldn't, she says, allow for bigger or noisier jets, as the weight limit on the new runway would be the same as it is on the current runway. In addition, by moving the runway 400 feet to the east and 1,000 feet to the north, flight patterns will move farther from the residential development south of the airport.
"It has nothing but benefits for everybody," she says.
Even the $7 million cost of the project, she points out, won't fall on local taxpayers. The FAA has committed to pay 90 percent of the bill, with the RCASF and other private sources covering the rest. Though private funding is a source of concern for critics, Hedditch, an RCASF board member, dismisses the issue.
"Who cares?" he says. "We want this runway 5,200 feet long so that it's safe for 100 percent of the people that use it today. And I don't care where the money comes from that we get."
Meanwhile, as debate over how the airport should expand continues, the existing facilities are badly deteriorating.
"It's to a point where, pretty soon here, within the next 10 years, that [runway] pavement's going to need a major rehabilitative effort," Engebrecht says. The FAA's willingness to pay for that rehabilitation, however, is contingent on the county finally moving forward with a plan that meets federal safety standards.
Asked about the prospect of the county once again failing to decide on how to resolve the airport's issues, Hedditch is grim. "There won't be a start over," Hedditch says. "The FAA will be done with us."