The controversial issue of local airport redevelopment reared its head at a work session of Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday following three months during which the topic had been relatively dormant.
A majority of commissioners quickly dismissed a local group’s request to place an airport-redevelopment question on the Nov. 3 ballot, saying that putting the issue before voters this fall would be extremely premature.
The request came from a nonprofit that was formed in opposition to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport’s proposed expansion as outlined under the recent yearlong ASE Vision process. As county officials were meeting in a lengthy online work session Tuesday afternoon, Wayne Ethridge, a founding member of the organization Save Our Skies and a former county commissioner, sent an email to the five sitting commissioners. County Manager John Peacock and County Attorney John Ely were copied as well. The email asks commissioners to discuss the item at a work session set for next Tuesday.
SOS says its ballot language closely mirrors that of a 1995 county ballot item relating to local airport expansion that was shot down by voters. The ASE Vision process, which involved more than 100 community members serving on five separate committees, culminated in March with a 20-1 vote by the overarching ASE Vision Committee to widen the runway to accommodate a new generation of commercial aircraft — with wider wingspans and likely a greater seating capacity — to replace the CRJ-700 jets currently utilized by the three airlines serving Aspen’s market. The ASE Vision process was largely fueled by information promoted by some county officials and private consultants that the CRJ-700s will be retired in the next decade, perhaps as soon as two years from now, necessitating the need for improved airport infrastructure.
SOS said its desired outcome regarding airport redevelopment would not be achieved through a successful “yes” vote of its proposed ballot language. Still, the group wants the ballot question, which seeks to authorize a bond issue for a runway widening, on the fall ballot.
“While the proposed issue certainly does not represent the position of Save our Skies, like the 1995 issue, it provides an opportunity for the public to vote on an expansion of the runway, which we believe will result in the introduction of significantly larger commercial and private aircraft,” the email states. “We believe the results of a vote on runway expansion will provide guidance to the county regarding the ASE Vision process and recommendations and with the county’s relationship” with the Federal Aviation Administration, the airlines and the airport’s fixed-base operator.
The proposed ballot question reads, in part: “Authorization to issue revenue bonds for widening of the airport runway (does not authorize a tax increase).
“Shall Pitkin County debt for the airport be increased a principal amount of up to 50 million dollars with a repayment cost of up to 120 million dollars by the issues and payment of revenue bonds for the purpose of widening the runway in order to accommodate all aircraft with a wingspan of up to 118 feet, and which demonstrate the capability to operate at the airport, including the Boeing 737 Max 7, Max 8 and all applicable commercial and private versions of the 737…”
Airport redevelopment critics have long expressed the belief that a runway-widening project would lead to widespread use of the Boeing 737 and its various iterations — aircraft types they feel are too big and noisy for the Aspen community. Desired negotiations between the county and commercial airlines to identify an acceptable type of jet for use in the local market have been put on hold amid the COVID-19 pandemic as airlines have focused on improving their footing following months of low travel demand.
County officials pointed out they were planning to hold presentations and public hearings on the ASE Vision recommendations starting next month. The notion of asking voters to approve a bond issue for airport redevelopment this fall wasn’t even on their minds at this stage of the process, many said.
Most of the cost of proposed airside improvements is expected to be covered by the FAA, and a request to voters to authorize a bond issue was likely years away, they said. Up to $500 million has been mentioned as the estimated price tag for airside and terminal projects, but during ASE Vision meetings there was talk that the costs would be considerably lower. The engineering and design work that will dictate the estimate has yet to be conducted and is pending formal BOCC approval of the project’s scope.
Commissioners expressed their surprise about the email from SOS and Ethridge. It was apparent that Tuesday’s discussion of it was unplanned. Any addition to this fall’s ballot would have to be decided before the first week of September.
“To have a ballot issue initiative at this point is so premature, because we haven’t really had that discussion in terms of what we may be doing or not,” Commissioner George Newman said. “And so it makes no sense to do it, frankly.”
Commissioner Patti Clapper agreed. She said she wanted to read the SOS-proposed ballot language and compare it to the language in the 1995 referendum on airport expansion.
She added that she was more interested at this stage in setting up public meetings to review the ASE Vision recommendations. Commissioners were briefed on those recommendations during an online presentation in April, but they made no decisions, simply thanking the volunteer committees for their work.
The upcoming presentations and public hearings on those recommendations, she said, may address some of SOS’s and Ethridge’s concerns, along with revealing the direction commissioners will take.
“I think we need the opportunity to do that,” Clapper said.
Commissioner Steve Child concurred. He said the SOS request “may divert attention from what we need to be doing, which is holding meetings on the recommendations of the [ASE] Vision Committee. A ballot question would preempt the process we’ve been going through.”