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The Los Alamos County Council’s first Friday afternoon meeting was dominated by the review of a new Airport Master Plan. Councilors green lighted the proposed plan in a 6-0 vote, with council member Rick Reiss away on travel.
The Federal Aviation Administration recommends that master plans be updated every seven to 10 years. The Los Alamos County Airport plan had not been updated since 1994.
The plan is not only critical to short- and long-term planning, but is a crucial element in receiving FAA funding for airport projects.
The county contracted with Delta Airport Consulting to develop the plan. Staff worked closely with the consultants and their sub-consultant Coffman Associates, a firm that specializes in noise and master planning at airports of similar size and activity.
A Planning Advisory Committee comprised of 20 individuals provided input on a regular basis. Members included representatives from the New Mexico Department of Transportation Aviation Division, based pilot population, the county Community & Economic Development Department and Public Works Department, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and two residents from the Eastern Area.
Funding for the project came from FAA and State grants in the amount of $216,466, with a county match of $5,412.
The plan anticipates modest growth in the next 20 years, with landings and takeoffs increasing from 15,000 a year to 27,000 or 28,000, a capacity to house 100 planes instead of 70 and commercial enplanements increasing to 34,000. Due to the physical boundaries of the airport, only slightly larger planes could be accommodated.
The highest priority is building a taxiway. Planes currently have to taxi on the runway for more than 700 feet then turn around and take off.
“That is not an ideal condition and can be confusing, particularly for pilots who may not be familiar with the airport. The ideal way is to taxi on a taxiway to the threshold and take off,” said Patrick Taylor, lead planner for Coffman Associates, who made the presentation. “That’s an important safety consideration and will be a high priority for FAA funding.”
In order to build a taxiway, a row of hangers must be relocated or replaced with more modern facilities. Thirteen of those hangars belong to private owners, although the land they sit on is leased from the county.
The lease allows the county to purchase the hangars at fair market value or 50 percent of fair market value if they are more than 20 years old. The advisory committee was satisfied with assurances that the owners would be treated fairly and equitably when the plan is implemented.
“Hopefully in one construction season the old hangars can be removed and new ones in place to provide a place for those people with hangars to move into in a very short period of time,” Taylor said.
The project would also provide an opportunity to build a new hangar complex with both small hangars and large box hangars for commercial enterprises and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“The county has lost numerous opportunities to get businesses and other people in who wanted to use large hangars. We have lost revenue, we continue to lose revenue,” said David Carroll during public comment. Carroll represented the AOPA on the Planning Advisory Committee.
The short-term plan also calls for shade structures to protect planes from the elements.
Mid- and long-term planning calls for additional hangars to the west of the terminal and in the landfill area. However, within 18 months of the landfill being capped by the Department of Energy, some areas began to subside and others to rise, so the area is unsuitable for construction. Staff is currently in discussions with DOE about the issue.
“The land was to be left in a useable condition. I think it is a dereliction of DOE’s duty for what has happened now to be allowed to pass, because the land is not useable to anybody,” said Carroll, who was involved in original negotiations with DOE concerning the land transfer.
The plan uses a device called “Declared Distances” to address Eastern Area residents’ concerns about extending the airport to meet safety standards. The declared distance informs pilots they have only 5,835 feet available for landing. Takeoff requires more length and pilots will have the entire 6,000 feet of the runway available.
The plan also calls for the terminal to be expanded to 12,000 square feet to accommodate increased commuter traffic. That $5 million project will be eligible for FAA funding if enplanements reach 10,000 within a calendar year.
The short-term elements of the plan (including the terminal) are estimated to cost $15 million. The entire project cost would be $22.6 million. Most of the costs are eligible for FAA Airport Improvement Program grants, which have a 90/10 match. Additional federal and state funding is also available.
The county currently has a placeholder of $400,000 for building hangars.
“I can attest to the fact that it was a very long but fair and equitable process, and I think all the problems and concerns were addressed,” Carroll said. “And I am very happy and very proud as a pilot and member of the community to endorse the body of work you’re asked to approve today.”
The motion to approve the plan passed unanimously, with Chair Geoff Rodgers commenting, “This is not is not just about the airport. This is about Los Alamos becoming a real, live, economic center. We need a decent airport to get to that.”