FAA funding proponent ignores important facts

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Bob Elliott’s Aug. 23 Post-Record guest column offered a “different perspective on FAA funding” for the Port of Camas-Washougal’s Grove Field. Unfortunately, Bob’s perspective seems to be from the rather narrow viewpoint of many Grove Field airport users.

I’m not a pilot and I live east of Washougal, so I gave airport issues little attention until I was selected to serve on the Port’s Environmental Assessment Advisory Committee for Grove Field. Since then I have paid close attention. As the only committee member without an individual or institutional interest in airport issues, I took my duty to represent the average Port District resident very seriously. So here are some thoughts from my perspective.

The idea of Federal Aviation Administration funding for Grove Field has been around for several years. Some airport users have been in full support of accepting the funding, and the airport expansion and obligation to the FAA that came with it. They considered it a “no brainer,” which sounded to me like an invitation not to think too deeply about it. Some airport opponents consider Grove Field to be a nuisance and a hazard. Some even suggested that this publicly owned land would benefit more of the area’s residents if it was converted to soccer fields.

There seems to have been enough information (or misinformation) to argue either side of the contentious issues involved. Unfortunately, that is what occurred. Most discussion amounted to arguing one side or the other.

The previous Port Commission was solidly in favor of Grove Field becoming FAA obligated from the start. They installed an advisory committee to consider whether this project was a good idea, but abandoned the committee when it appeared to be heading toward a recommendation not to proceed. Then they installed the committee that I served on, but our primary task was to consider options for dealing with the county road that was in the way of the proposed runway expansion. There was no doubt that they were going forward with FAA funding. As their final action before leaving office, the last two of these previous commissioners directed their consultant to line up funding for the project. Their goal remained clear and unchanged while they “gathered information.”

Our current commissioners were left to ask the critical questions that were never asked in the past. After pulling together all of the pertinent information they could find, I believe they made a thoughtful decision in the best interest of all residents of the Port District.

But Mr. Elliott counters, point by point, the reasons clearly stated by our Port Commissioners, in an Aug. 2 guest column, for not accepting FAA funding for Grove Field.

He touts the reasonableness of a 20 year commitment, glossing over the more likely reality, a commitment to maintain the airport in perpetuity. During my time on the advisory committee, we were repeatedly told that; a) accepting FAA funding would mean a 20 year commitment, and b) the Lehr property already purchased by the Port would be the local share of the cost of the project. We now know the use of that property purchase as our share would have likely resulted in an “in perpetuity” commitment. We would be locked into an unclear process with unknown future requirements. Can’t Bob see the very real risks and uncertainty associated with this loss of local control?

Regarding funding uncertainties, he suggests “why not work the program and if it doesn’t work out then you are no worse off.” He ignores the fact that the first steps in accepting any funding would obligate our Port to the FAA. Using property already purchased by the Port as our theoretical 2.5 percent of the costs, as has been suggested, likely would have made the obligation perpetual. And Congress has recently shown that funding for these projects is at their discretion. How much of this project would be funded, and when?

Can’t Bob see the importance of the unresolved “through the fence” issue? The final FAA position on this is unknown, but we would have to comply with whatever they ultimately decide. The Port could end up in a tricky legal situation, with the current obligation to give the north side property owners free access to the airport, and a requirement by the FAA that disallows it.

He sees the mobile home park as “not a big issue”. This was the issue when the Port originally sought FAA funding years ago. The FAA would likely require its removal in the future. At what cost to the public? How would the mobile home residents be treated? We would find out later.

Bob argues that the current decline in general aviation is just a symptom of our general economy. The decline is not just that there are fewer planes being manufactured, or that pilots are flying fewer hours. There are fewer pilots, and they are getting older. This is not all from the economy.

Regarding economic development, Mr. Elliott’s gloomy view suggests that a multimillion dollar influx of public funds and an “in perpetuity” commitment to the Federal Government “is needed to provide the minimum infrastructure to economically develop the airport”.

Several months ago Commissioner Ward asked for assistance from airport users, wishing to establish an economic development advisory committee for Grove Field. Bob Elliott stepped forward with a very well thought-out proposal for developing this committee. But his formative group soon got off task, reporting to the Commissioners that they would like to be a “commission” themselves, involved in the general operation of Grove Field.

I would like to think that Bob sees potential in the airport we have. Grove Field is popular and successful, maintaining near 100 percent hanger occupancy. Flying lessons are offered, and it’s home to the Camas Washougal Aviation Association, an active group that promotes flying interests.

I thank our Port Commissioners for working in the best interest of all residents of the Port District. I especially thank Commissioner Ward and Executive Director Ripp for the extra diligence that uncovered the “in perpetuity” trap that we were being led into. This is one instance where local control really is best.