Town urges quick action on airport issues

Thu, 11/21/2019 - 6:30pm

A meeting between town officials and staff from the Rhode Island Airport Corporation that was intended to get feedback on a proposed 10-year plan for the state’s general aviation airports turned into a plea of sorts from Block Island to have some needs addressed more immediately. Although both RIAC and town officials hope to schedule a public hearing on the 10-year plan soon after the start of the new year, the town pushed RIAC to move ahead on some key issues, such as addressing pavement issues at the Block Island Airport and the tree obstruction issue at the Westerly Airport, before that meeting is scheduled. There was also some discussion about creating more revenue at the Block Island Airport to get it out of the red.

Nine officials from RIAC were joined by Town Manager Ed Roberge, councilors Martha Ball and Sven Risom, and Land Use Administrative Officer Jenn Brady on Thursday, Nov. 14 at Town Hall.

After brief summaries from several RIAC officials, and their desire for input and support from the town of New Shoreham on the proposed 10-year plan, Town Councilor Martha Ball spoke up and said, “It sounds like you’re doing a re-start. I’m very unclear about where we are. We’ve been through this. Are we starting over again?”

RIAC’S Chief Information Officer Christine Vitt said that the plan before them now was a “fresh plan. It’s different than what we had before because it’s a very comprehensive overview of the entire system that has not been done before.”

Vitt added that she knew there were “revenue-generating opportunities” at the Block Island Airport that may help get it out of the red, and that if there needs to be more immediate action on some issues, such as paving at the airport, then “we’re not going to sit and wait two years for this to be done.”

“We’ve heard similar words before,” said Risom.

“We are unique,” said local pilot Henry duPont, “We’re talking about one of our lifelines here.”

duPont said that any plans to expand services at Block Island would not receive the same level of opposition they may receive in other communities simply because of the frequency of use by Block Island residents of airline services. duPont surmised that while two percent of the residents of Westerly may use the airport there, he speculated that “here probably 60 percent of all the people use the airport and probably 30 percent use it on a regular basis.” He added that “our airline brings in over 15,000 enplanements every year.”

For many island visitors, the first impression they have of the island is of the airport. “It’s very important,” duPont said.

He also referenced a study completed in 2011 that did not seem to yield any results, and so he described the new plan on the table as “been there, done that.”

As an example, duPont asked where $4.3 million slated for the airport’s apron in RIAC’s Capital Improvement Plan for 2017-2021 went. “When we see $4.3 million disappear last year it raises some questions,” duPont said. “Our funds weren’t rolled over. They’re gone.” He asked for the funds to be reinstated. “We need more ramp space here,” he said. “It’s important to work together not to have a re-set. This is critical need for the island.”

duPont also urged the RIAC group to extend the contract of the airport’s current Fixed Base Operator, FlightLevel Aviation.

Jeff Goulart, RIAC’s Assistant Vice President for Financial Administration, said that FlightLevel had already asked for a year-long extension on its Block Island contract — “for more money,” added Goulart, to which duPont responded “That’s good news.”

Vitt also said, in response to duPont, “every project you mentioned is in the five-year plan. It didn’t disappear. It got rolled out.” She added, “let’s get the things fixed that need to be fixed.”

One of the issues with the Block Island airport is that it loses money. Ways in which to raise more revenue were also discussed at the meeting.

According to RIAC’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget, Block Island is expected to generate $60,300 in revenue in the current fiscal year. With operating expenses tagged at $735,100, this means that the Block Island Airport is expected to lose $674,800 this fiscal year. Adding $160,000 in annual debt service, Block Island Airport will be $834,000 in the red.

RIAC spokesperson Bill Fischer said that land at the airport can be used for both aviation and non-aviation uses to raise revenue. Non-aviation uses can be proposed only if it can be determined the land will never have an aviation use, “Releasing that land is a fairly onerous process,” said Fischer.

Roberge said the airport currently has “no non-aviation use, and there is no room to expand. Maybe we need to start looking critically at non-aviation uses. We need to make Block Island sustainable.”

Ball stressed that any changes should be kept to the airport proper. She added that any changes of use across Center Road “there would be a lot of opposition.”

Charging for parking has also been discussed, “but it always brings up the negatives,” said Jeffrey Wiggin, Assistant Vice President of Operations and Maintenance. When asked what the negatives might be, Wiggin said the main issues were monitoring and enforcement.

“We understand your issues and your frustrations,” Wiggin said.

“We’re just trying to generate revenue,” said Risom.

RIAC’s attorney, Brent Semple, then brought forth the ongoing litigation regarding abutters at the Westerly Airport. Residential neighbors at that airport have obtained an injunction that prevents RIAC from trimming trees on several privately-owned properties. The high trees have the effect of reducing the length of available runway space because incoming planes have to fly above the trees. Semple said the litigation was currently in a “holding phase” and asked, when the time was right, for the town to support RIAC’s position in the case.

“It’s your sister airport,” said Semple of Westerly. “It’s of great importance to you.” He said the town could support the lawsuit in any number of ways, including joining it, and writing a resolution calling for a settlement of the matter.

When Semple said that the lawsuit could take years to resolve, duPont said “the fact that this is going to take years to resolve is depressing.”

“In terms of litigation, it’s going to be a long process,” said Semple.

“I understand it’s complex and its burdensome, but it should be a priority for RIAC,” said duPont.

“It takes up a lot of my time. It goes levels-deep, and that’s why it’s important for you to back us. We need Westerly to be open,” said Semple. It was suggested that the details of the case be presented to the Town Council so that it could review the matter more thoroughly.

“We need to chase this,” said Roberge. “It’s our connection to the mainland. This is more important for us than it is to Westerly.”

Ball added, in what appears to be a reversal of how things were years ago, that often there are no boats when the planes are still flying. That used to be the other way around, she said, adding to the urgency of why both airports needed to be running at peak capacity and safety.

“Every day that goes by is a day lost,” said Risom. “You’re hearing ‘all in’ from us. Hurry up. I don’t think we’re playing very smart. Let’s play smart.”

Vitt added that “900 feet of pavement is unusable (at Westerly) due to this issue.” She said that grant monies from the Federal Aviation Administration were also lost because the project the funds would have been used for could not go forward. “The ripple effect is enormous,” she said.

The next phase is to hold a public forum on the airport and RIAC’s 10-year plan. Vitt said she would like to hold that sometime in the first two months of the new year. Roberge said he would explore some dates and forward them to RIAC officials.