AOT responds to airport project complaints

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BENNINGTON — Release of scheduling details for a planned $4 million reconstruction of the William H. Morse State Airport runway has been delayed pending resolution of a right-of-way issue, a state Agency of Transportation official said Wednesday.

Responding to criticism from airport officials and business people based at the Bennington airport about a lack of information, Trini Brassard, acting Aviation Division program director, said securing 2.5 acres of abutting land for the project has yet to be finalized in Probate Court but that process is expected to be completed soon.

She said the parcel in question involves the cleared safety zone beyond the end of the paved 3,704-foot runway. The agreement has to go through the court process, she said, and receive final approvals before the state can officially award the construction contract.

Once the contract is signed, Brassard said, the contractor will have 10 days to provide a construction schedule.

Markowski Excavating Inc., of Florence, submitted the low bid for the project, at just over $3.91 million.

"I understand their frustration," Brassard said of those at the local airport, adding, "We hope to have this resolved soon."

Citing the expected closure of the airport's sole runway for at least 90 days during the project, Bennington Airport Committee members and a business owner based at the facility off Walloomsac Road were critical of a dearth of detailed information they have thus far been provided by the AOT.

During a meeting on Monday, John Likakis, secretary of the nonprofit Bennington Airport Development Corp., which oversees the facility, said the AOT had confirmed a March 2018 start for the project but no further details were provided.

"What does a March start mean?" he said. "I'm not happy with these answers, and so I'm pushing to find out what it does mean."

Alex Kelly, owner of two businesses based at the airport, said the situation is at the point he is considering moving to an airport in another state. He cited the need to planned for the expected airport shutdown and learn whether businesses will be provided any compensation for the time they can't operate from the Bennington facility.

Kelly owns Green Mountain Skydiving and Taconic Aviation, which offers flight instruction, scenic flights and other services.

Brassard said the state will waive hanger rental fees during the construction period and is prepared to assist businesses to operate from one of the other nine state airports in Vermont. She said business owners should reach out to her office for more information on those issues.

She said the AOT hopes to have a complete construction schedule and related details within two months. "We want to allow the maximum time for folks to make plans," she said.

Work will include reconstructing the runway to its base, replacing the lighting system, extending a cleared runway safety zone by 100 feet at one end, and the first phase of a project to create a parallel taxiway along the runway.

The airport runway was constructed in 1982, and both the runway and its lighting system are near the end of their life spans, officials have said.

The 35-foot-wide taxi strip, initially extending about half the way along the runway, is designed to allow landing aircraft to immediately turn off the 75-foot-wide runway, and it allows pilots preparing for takeoff a space that is off the runway surface, keeping that open for other craft.

The AOT announced recently that $3.5 million in funding through the Federal Aviation Administration had been approved for the Bennington project. Vermont will fund 10 percent of the cost.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.

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