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There was a new twist to the annual trip to Washington, D.C., when representatives meet with congressional delegates and federal officials to discuss the county’s priorities.
In addition to the usual concerns about funding for environmental cleanup and for Los Alamos National Laboratory, county delegates lobbied for an Essential Air Service designation for Los Alamos County Airport.
Council Chair Geoff Rodgers, Vice-Chair Kristin Henderson, Councilor Pete Sheehey and County Administrator Harry Burgess traveled to Washington the end of April, carrying a letter arguing for the EAS designation.
EAS was instituted when the airlines were deregulated in 1978, to insure that small, rural airports could continue to have commercial air service. The program provides subsidies to insure a minimal level of service to small communities.
At the time of deregulation, Los Alamos Airport met all but one criterion: the airport was already served by a commercial carrier that did not require support from the EAS. At that time, Ross Aviation was receiving federal money for air service through Los Alamos National Laboratory.
By the time that service was discontinued, the EAS program was no longer accepting new participants.
That meant that when the county wanted to reestablish air service in Los Alamos, they had to find other ways to ensure that an airline would not lose money. The county negotiated with New Mexico Air to provide a subsidy for any empty seats below seven.
The county was awarded a $272,000 Small Community Air Service Development Program Grant (SCASDP) from the U.S. Department of Transportation and a $15,000 contribution from Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was used to subsidize the airlines for under-booked flights. However, that grant is only for expanding air service and is not recurring.
When the grant money ran out in February, council approved an additional $365,000 to continue subsidizing the air service.
The need for subsidies has decreased as ridership has increased, but Burgess anticipates there will always be under booked flights, making subsidies essential for retaining commercial air service.
“Most of these EAS communities continue to pay some sort of subsidy just to have access to air service. So we anticipate that will probably be a reality for us for the near future,” Burgess said. “So our desire would be to be treated like the other cities around the country that get the EAS money, as opposed to having to use local tax dollars to subsidize this needed service.”
The EAS designation would have an additional benefit. Federal taxes and fees are waived for airports with an EAS designation. Airport Manager Peter Soderquist estimated that not having that designation added $10 to $15 to the cost of each ticket, which contributed to the initial grant being used so quickly.
Burgess indicated that our congressional delegation was not optimistic about the county obtaining an EAS designation.
“For the past several years there has been a lot of discussion about EAS subsidies, and a federal desire to actually get rid of that program, although they haven’t,” Burgess said. “It’s a big expense for them, and with the federal budget the way it has been for the past several years, there hasn’t really been a lot of expectation that the doors could be open to add communities to the EAS route structure.
“So the reception was that they’d help us, but they’d likely be looking at other avenues that they could find (i.e. grant money)…Since EAS has gotten such a focus lately, it’s not one that I think anyone in D.C. is willing to expend their political capital to try to shoehorn a new community in. It’s almost impossible, in some respects, given the prior conversations.”
Burgess ended on a note of optimism.
“I’m not writing out EAS. I know those guys are dedicated and also innovative, so they may come up with something, and that was our request,” Burgess said. “But more than anything, we wanted them to be aware of this issue, so that as something might come across their desk, a different grant program or a consideration of how EAS was structured, then at least we’d be in the back of their minds so that they can act at that time.”
The congressional delegation did forward the county’s letter requesting EAS designation to the Department of Transportation, along with a letter of support from the congressional delegation.
The county’s representatives also received hopeful news regarding an alternative to the Chemistry Metallurgy Research Replacement project. A proposal that was first floated by LANL Director Charlie McMillan last year — building modular units to replace the CMRR instead of one large facility — has gained traction over the course of the year.
“This year, everyone we spoke to was familiar with it and was talking about it,” Burgess said.
There were also indications that money for design and development of the modular units may be forthcoming. The FY2015 budget has $35 million dedicated to the project and a placeholder of approximately $75 million from an earlier budget may also be released.
“Now, that’s a big step, because of two things. One is, this modular design, the thought is that by taking it in smaller bites to Congress, you could get something that’s funded,” Burgess said. “A couple hundred million is a lot for us, but compared to several billion, they felt that individual sessions of Congress would feel comfortable building these individual smaller buildings with fixed amounts as opposed to the one large project.
“The other consideration was that starting it assumed progressing with it, so there was a lot of reticence to release that money for design until they knew they were moving forward with it. So it’s a good signal that hopefully things are moving forward.”
The delegation stressed that the lab has an obligation to vacate the CMR facility by 2019.
“So our message was, if you’re going to make that date, you’ve got to get started on it now. And as much as we support the funding for the lab, we also support modernization of the facilities for the safety of our community,” Burgess said.
The delegation again lobbied for $255 million in environmental cleanup funds, stressing the completion of the 3706 project, addressing the chromium contamination issue and completing testing on parcels of Department of Energy land designated for transfer to the county. The delegation stressed the need for those transfers as an economic development tool.
The delegation also met with newly appointed NNSA Administrator Frank Klotz, the first local government to do so.
“He was very personable and genuinely listened to our concerns,” Rodgers said.
The delegation also renewed calls for the creation of a Manhattan Project Historic National Park.