Commercial air service could be a plus for [the South Lake Tahoe] community
May 10, 2007
In June 2006, the League to Save Lake Tahoe wrote a guest editorial in the Tahoe Daily Tribune asking the following question: “Are all of the airport operations worth the environmental, economic and social costs to local taxpayers, the community and Lake Tahoe?”
My answer is absolutely, within reason. For the past month, I have been asking that question on www.ourtahoe. org/voices and have invited anyone who wanted to comment to do so. What I found was the environmental, economic and social ramifications of the airport are not what you might think. In reality, the airport has little impact on the Upper Truckee River. Fine sediment remains constant in both river and groundwater as it has for millions of years. Most of the airport runoff has been mitigated under a settlement agreement reached in 1992 between the league, the city and the TRPA. As for stream bank erosion, the Upper Truckee watershed is flat and subject to widespread flooding during the spring. The amount of erosion that can actually be mitigated near the runway is relatively small. Nonetheless, a plan for reworking the flood plain to the east of the runway is already in the works. But water clarity isn’t the only environmental issue, the league points out. There’s the noise. On this the league says, “Large and loud corporate jets likely break the legal noise limits on a regular basis, based on a review of manufacturer specifications.”
Well, not exactly. Strict noise restrictions have been in place since 1992. For many years, those levels were monitored by a system at the airport. It broke and the city is still scrambling to replace it.
But since March 2006, the TRPA has sponsored a noise complaint hotline. It has received 30 calls about airplanes; 18 of those calls placed by two people who called nine times each, another nine were from two people who called four or more times. So essentially four or five people are logging the majority of noise complaints.
So let’s remove the environmental fig leaf that has traditionally covered real airport issues. The remainder of those who object to the airport generally have two reasons for doing so:
In other words, it hasn’t been economically viable and it just draws a lot of people who are destroying the quality of our town.
Why the airport hasn’t been economically viable is a question that draws dramatically different opinions. In short, here’s what happened. In 1982, before the league brought the decade-long suit against the city to close the airport, it actually was profitable. In the late 1970s, almost 230,000 passengers per year deplaned at the South Shore.
That’s why the league filed the suit. So many planes, at the time, meant lots of noise. When the agreement was reached in 1993, the number of commercial flights allowed daily was whittled down to 10 a day in prime season and eight during the off-season. In addition, the noise level of flights was reduced to 80 decibels, far lower than most commercial jets at the time could handle.
Such restrictions on the number of flights and the size of jets simply made Tahoe unprofitable for most airlines. Once gone, getting the airlines back was much more challenging. And on those efforts, area leaders failed in two ways: Many simply didn’t have the conviction to fight for the airport, and those that did made some bad deals with the airlines they could attract. In the meantime, the Reno-Tahoe airport made a huge effort to expand into the Tahoe market.
That’s then. This is now.
Can the airport become economically viable again? Yes, according to a recent economic feasibility study done by RRC Associates. The potential for the airport is significant – not with people who would drive or fly here anyway, but from people who won’t come to Tahoe unless they can fly. With gradual increases in commercial air service, $50 million of new money could be circulating through the South Shore in four years. If you include Stateline in the mix, and we should since it still is the commercial engine of the South Shore, that amount doubles.
While there is no guarantee that the airlines would come, “if the opportunity were available, there is a high likelihood airlines would want to serve South Lake Tahoe,” said Nolan Rosall, president of RSS Associates.
Doesn’t that bring us back to the same place we were when the league filed its suit? In short, no. The numbers are based on regional jet service that draws in people from a 400-mile radius, from Portland to San Diego, not 747s from all over the country. The number of flights is limited to 10 a day. And the jets are small, between about 74 and 124 seats. Some, like the Dornier 328 RJ, make so little engine noise that the only sound heard is the wind off the fuselage.
But what will it do to the town? No doubt commercial air service will change South Lake Tahoe, but not in the ways so many fear. Here’s a reality check. There are more than 25,800 people who live in South Lake Tahoe, or 10,188 households. Sixty-one percent of those households make under $50,000 per year. Yet the median cost of a home in Tahoe is $420,000.
The dirty little secret about the South Shore is that 12 percent of the people who live here survive on wages under the poverty level. Even the entire of El Dorado County fares better than that at 7 percent.
It doesn’t take much driving around to see the many “for rent” signs in places that only recently had been viable businesses. According to Peggy Eichhorn with McKinney & Associates, a local Realtor since 1978, there is a 10 percent vacancy rate on commercial properties. That’s double the number from just three years ago.
Our town is dying and good jobs are simply disappearing. That’s not the way it was 20 years ago, but it will be the way it is for the next 20 if we don’t do something about it.
Commercial air service being proposed would bring a maximum of 10 regional jets, with no more than 124 passengers, into the South Shore daily during peak season. The noise of those jets is the equivalent or less to the noise of a vacuum cleaner. And the environmental impact of those jets is minimal, with no discernible degradation to lake clarity.
For so long, we have been focused on the environmental impact of economic decisions. Maybe it’s time to consider the economic impact of environmental decisions. Yes, let’s talk about the environmental, economic and social ramifications of the airport. But let’s make it a reasonable discussion.
Please join me at www.ourtahoe.org/ voices as I wrap up a month-long look at the South Shore airport.