Thursday, October 22, 2015

Does Williston, North Dakota, really need a new airport? County Commissioner suggests Sloulin Field International Airport (KISN) runway be lengthened instead

WILLISTON — A Williams County Commissioner is questioning the necessity of relocating Williston’s airport, and has raised a series of questions about it in a letter sent to a series of state and federal lawmakers.

County Commissioner Martin Hanson said he believes the city should keep the airport at its current location and just lengthen it instead.

“My job as an elected county county commissioner is to do what is best for my district, and believe me, this is not in the best interest of either the district or the county as a whole,” Hanson wrote in the letter. “I would hope you would consider both sides of this issue, not only what the media feeds you.”

In the letter Hanson outlines several reasons he believes the existing location is the best one for the airport, including decreased costs and preservation of farmland.

“With a 6-inch asphalt overlay, the current location will be fully adequate with at least $100,000,000 less cost,” Hanson writes. “Their proposed site requires at least 1,400 acres of prime farmland to be sacrificed (sold) for this project. Why is a nine-hole golf course more valuable than 1,400 producing farm acres? Why should local farmers be required to sell land, some of which has been in their family for generations, and plan to pass on to future generations, to build a totally unnecessary project as a show place for Williston?”

Hanson said the costs will undoubtedly exceed the KLJ estimates of $254 million, and questioned who will wind up responsible for the costs of operating future access to the airport.

“Will the Williams County taxpayers pay the burden of maintenance? If the affected farmers won’t sell willingly — and I certainly wouldn’t — will the city use eminent domain to condemn the land for this waste of taxpayer dollars?”

Hanson said if a new airport were needed, it ought to be built in McKenzie County as a regional facility to serve Watford City, Sidney and Williston, rather than north of Williston. He also accused KLJ of making lucrative work for itself.

“Remember there is a lot more money to be made in designing and engineering a new airport than upgrading an existing one, and they know that,” Hanson wrote.

He believes figures the city released supporting the need for a new airport have been misleading. They compare peak enplanements to pre-boom years, but enplanements of late have already dropped, he says, and will continue to do so as the workforce moves from transient to more permanent.

“The airport was adequate for the biggest numbers, and it will certainly handle a 50 percent reduction from that, which will happen,” he wrote. “That would only be 40 boardings per hour for a 10-hour day. That does not require a $254 million boondoggle to pacify the city of Williston’s vanity and enrich the coffers of KLJ.”

Airport Director Steven Kjergaard said keeping the airport at its current location was one of several options the city explored when it was deciding what to do about the airport.

“It’s not what Mr. Hanson said, that we could just add a 6-inch overlay at the existing airport,” Kjergaard said. “We would need a complete reconstruction of the runway and we’d have to widen it from 100 to 500 feet. We would also need to lower the northwest end. If you did the minimum plan, it’s 40 feet and if you did the correct plan, it’d be more than 90 feet. The taxiway is also too close to the runway.”

All of these things, Kjergaard said, are coming from FAA requirements to continue operating. The current airport has, in fact, been operating above published weight limits, Kjergaard said, and most of its runways don’t meet current safety standards for the aircraft landing on them.

“FAA is allowing us to continue operating because we are planning to do something,” he said.

In the scenario where the airport is left at its present location, the price tag to meet most of the FAA requirements adds up to $237 million. There would still be some non-compliant areas, but the FAA would allow them.

Moving the airport costs $21 million more than that — but allows the city to decommission the old airport and sell the land, which is in a prime commercial location. It also allows continuous airport operation, so that no revenue is lost from downtime. Those two factors make it the cheapest option, once lost revenue is considered.

A reconstructed airport at the present location cannot meet all the FAA design standards, Kjergaard added. It will also impose significant restrictions on future growth and development in areas surrounding it, particularly the two end portions where FAA rules require keeping approaches clear for between 1 and 2 miles.

“We’d have a height restriction where we couldn’t allow buildings there,” Kjergaard said.

That runway protection zone would also extend over the existing highway, limiting the ability to expand that roadway in the future.

“Moving the airport allows us to meet all FAA design standards with no disruption to air service, and we can sell the property, which will further reduce the cost involved,” Kjergaard said.

The concept of a regional airport in McKenzie County was looked at in the site selection process.

“If you are going to invest a quarter of a billion dollars and the FAA is going to fund a big chunk of that, they require you to study what the best location is going to be,” Kjergaard said.

Sites toward the south, however, ran into major wildlife attractants such as the Missouri River, as well as oil wells and hilly terrain that was going to substantially increase costs.

“We did look down (Highway) 200 down into McKenzie County,” Kjergaard said. “But we found basically no sites other than one that was too close to the river. We needed 2 miles of flat ground, without major transmission lines, towers or oil wells in the way, away from wildlife attractants, while semi-close to a major roadway, infrastructure and a population center.”

A population center ensures emergency services are within a reasonable distance for response times in the event of fire or other issues.

“We did find you start being limited as you look further to the south,” Kjergaard said. “Terrain becomes problematic. It’s hillier and there are more draws through it, which would also have meant the installations of more culverts. We couldn’t find one that would work without oil wells in the way, and relocating even one of those would cost upwards of $150 million, per well.”

KLJ, Kjergaard added, is the city’s engineer of record.

“FAA requires qualification-based selection of consultants and that’s something the city does every five years,” he said. “The state assists us, and we are doing it again next year. We haven’t assured KLJ in the future that any work will go to them. They are our engineer of record for now. If next year, we went with someone else, all incomplete contracts could be changed. In fact, we could do that now. We could do it at any point in time.”

The complexity and expense of the airport project has prompted Kjergaard to have independent fee reviews for KLJ’s work, to ensure the city is getting a fair price. The city hired TKDA, an engineering firm out of Minneapolis, to provide these estimates. Their last of a $914,000 contract for site grading landed within 3 percent of KLJ’s estimate.

“It was not KLJ’s idea anyway,” Kjergaard added. “It was, in fact, a rather large surprise to KLJ and the FAA when we sat down and had the discussion with them the first time. It was our idea because we saw the handwriting on the wall that this facility isn’t going to work any more for us.”

Kjergaard said while the city’s enplanements are down 8 percent the past month, on a year to year basis the city is still 5 percent ahead of last year and hasn’t seen the kind of drop-offs that other airports in the state have.

“To me that doesn’t mean we are declining massively,” he said. “We are basically holding steady. Even at a 50 to 60 percent reduction, we’d still be at 70,000 passenger enplanements in a terminal that was only designed to handle 10,000.”

As far as the impact on farmland, Kjergaard said some of the land will be allowed to remain as farmland even after it’s been purchased. There may be some rules and guidelines on crops that could be grown there, which will be spelled out in a lease agreement with the airport, but agricultural use is considered compatible.

“We want to treat the landowners as fairly and equally as we can,” Kjergaard said. “It’s fully our intent to make sure they are compensated to the best of our abilities. We will follow the Real property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970.”

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