Editorial: Clarity needed from state on airport plan

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Airports such as Bennington's William H. Morse State Airport are more than a convenience for people fortunate enough to own planes, or a nice perk for a community. They are bona-fide economic development engines and lifelines for businesses that rely upon air travel to get people and supplies from one place to another. They are a big advantage for the towns that are lucky enough to have them, especially in a rural state where two major transportation developments of the last century — the advent of the interstate highway system and the near-total death of passenger rail — left Bennington and environs with fewer transportation options.One would think with an asset that valuable as Morse Airport, state transportation officials would be more forthcoming in conveying details about its coming closure for runway reconstruction to stakeholders, so that they can plan ahead. Up until now, that hasn't been the case. At a meeting on Monday, business owners and officials who oversee operation of the airport said that other than a tentative March start date for the project, they were largely in the dark. They had heard that the state will assist businesses in relocating to other state airports for the duration, but details were lacking. Businesses need to plan well ahead of time. And we're talking about a solid three months of runway closure. It turns out that right-of-way acquisition issues now tied up in probate court are a reason that the Aviation Division of VTrans hasn't provided more information to stakeholders at Morse Airport. Until that process is completed, the state can't sign a contract, an official said Wednesday, and without a contract, there are no firm details for VTrans to share. Why that circumstance couldn't be shared with stakeholders is a bit of a head-scratcher. This isn't closing a lane on Route 7 for a day to take down trees. This is a three-month, $3.9 million construction project, with $3.5 million in federal tax dollars paying the lion's share of the bill and Vermont taxpayers kicking in 10 percent. And the work is needed. The cracks in the surface pavement, as seen in the photo on the front page of Tuesday's Banner, are what you'd expect for a runway that hasn't been rebuilt since 1982. A project that size deserves clearer, more consistent lines of communication. We hope to see that going forward. There's another issue with aeronautics in Vermont, and it's got everything to do with funding. At Monday's Airport Committee meeting, John Likakis, of the nonprofit Bennington Airport Development Corp., noted significant funding was cut from the Aviation Division's budget this year, and another significant cut is expected by many for the coming year. That makes him concerned about the future of maintenance and Aviation Division staffing in the years to come. Given the state's fiscal situation, every department needs to expect that it will have to do more with less. That's just reality.But rural areas not served by interstates such as Bennington need the option of viable air service on a scale that makes sense. We expect Montpelier should clearly understand that rural airports such as Morse are important to Southern Vermont and its economy — and therefore worth taxpayer investment.


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