Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Airport future looks secure
Council decides there are minimal risks in keeping airport open past 2017
By Jocelyn Dong
The Palo Alto (CA) Weekly
The spirits of local pilots and other Palo Alto Airport enthusiasts were flying high Monday night after the City Council gave the airport its vote of confidence. The council affirmed 7-1 that the Palo Alto Airport is “an essential long-term transportation and recreational component of the city’s infrastructure,” worth keeping open for at least 20 years. They stopped short, however, of directing staff to develop a long-term plan.
Councilmember Dena Mossar opposed the motion, and Councilmember Hillary Freeman was absent.
The council’s decision means that the airport could receive as much as $1.8 million from the federal government to improve the airport with homeland-security measures.
Specifically, the funds are earmarked for repairing an access road, installing security systems and gates, buying pilot-controlled lighting and purchasing an automated weather-observation system.
The capital grants had been in jeopardy. In 2003, Santa Clara County, which operates the airport for the city, applied for a $450,000 federal grant. The council gave its conditional assurance that the airport would remain open, which the county accepted at the time.
Earlier this year, the county applied for a $1.3 million federal grant, and asked the city to give an unconditional assurance of the airport’s future — not only for the 2005 grant but for the previous grant.
In May, City Manager Benest told the county it was beyond his authority to promise to keep the airport running past 2017, which is when the county’s operating lease would end. Without the council’s specific direction, he could not sign the grant, he said.
That action created a windstorm within the aviation community, which felt the airport’s very existence was threatened. Led by Peter Carpenter, chair of the Joint Community Relations Committee for the Palo Alto Airport, airport supporters turned out in force to a council meeting in May and geared up again for this week’s meeting.
Monday night drew notables like Martin Litton, a former member of the Sierra Club board of directors, who has led efforts to oppose logging in the Sequoia National Forest. Litton, a pilot, has used the airport as a take-off point for showing conservation areas to government officials and the media. He called the airport “the fountainhead of all nature preservation efforts” in the area.
Other speakers told the council of their passions for aviation. The father of a son who has disabilities said he is able to connect with his child through flying. The staff of Stanford Hospital and Clinics and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital spoke of their reliance on the airport for fueling their life-saving flights. A young man relayed his experiences in learning how to conduct airborne search-and-rescue operations through the airport’s Civil Air Patrol.
Speakers also reminded the council that both the city’s Baylands Master Plan and Comprehensive Plan list the “continued vitality and effectiveness of the Palo Alto Airport” as city policy.
After the vote, the flying enthusiasts cheered. Ralph Britton, president of the Palo Alto Airport Association, a nonprofit organization of pilots and businesses, grinned broadly.
“We’re pleased with the action and are looking forward to working with the council on the plans,” he said. “That’s all we could have expected out of tonight.”
But not everyone was thrilled. Mossar serves on the Regional Airport Planning Committee of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional transportation-planning and financing agency that takes a system-wide view of local airports. A recent report indicated that the commission would support the closure of the Palo Alto Airport if Moffett Field were to accept general aviation again.
She also expressed concerns that the city would have to foot the bill if the county declined to operate the airport after 2017, and an independent operator couldn’t be found.
“I think it would be totally irresponsible for this council to affirm anything,” she said.
Councilmember Bern Beecham voted in favor of the airport, but wasn’t happy at hearing people blame Benest for the federal funding being put at risk.
“I think that is just wrong. The county screwed up,” he said, referring to the five-day window they gave Benest this spring to gain the council’s assurances. “If you want to blast anyone, you can blast us … or the county.”
Several councilmembers wanted to direct staff to study the airport further, especially about the finances of the airport, since they heard conflicting information about whether the facility makes or loses money.
But Benest urged the council to put off any studies until after the county’s master and business plan for the county’s airports are published this fall. Councilmember Jack Morton went even further, telling his colleagues to wait awhile before trying to predict what the airport’s economics will be in 2017.
Getting financial data now that won’t be used for 12 years “is a waste of time,” he said.
Vice Mayor Kleinberg urged city staff to include the airport’s many stakeholders in discussions over how to run the facility in the future.
California Pilots Association’s Bill Sanders testified in support of the airport. Bill maintains an aircraft at Palo Alto