Frustration mounts over Bennington airport project planning

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BENNINGTON — Members of the management board at William H. Morse State Airport and business owners based at the facility say their frustration level is rising over a lack of detailed information about a planned full reconstruction of the airport's sole runway.

"I keep pushing, but it's like pushing against Jell-O," John Likakis, of the nonprofit Bennington Airport Development Corp., which oversees the facility off Walloomsac Road, said during a Bennington Airport Committee meeting Monday.

Lakakis said the Aviation Division of the Vermont Agency of Transportation has confirmed that the runway project will start in March, but no further details have been 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."

Lakakis said local officials and business owners at the airport need to know whether the actual construction work — estimated to take about 90 days and close the sole runway for most or all of that period — will start early in the month or in late March, and approximately when the runway might reopen.

In addition, AOT officials have mentioned helping businesses and private pilots in making arrangements to fly from other airports during the shutdown, he said, but no details have been forthcoming.

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.

"The state of Vermont is not being very helpful," Kelly said during the committee meeting. "The businesses here can't get information to plan. We have no idea how long [the project] will take. I've been trying for a year to get this information."

Kelly, who owns Green Mountain Skydiving and Taconic Aviation, which offers flight instruction, scenic flights and other services, added that businesses "continue to get ongoing promises, but there is a lack of any follow-through."

Likakis said he was told by Larry Lackey, aviation project developer with the AOT, that a construction schedule will be provided within the next two months.

He and Kelly also said they're concerned about the future of airport maintenance and Aviation Division staffing levels because of a $500,000 cut in the current aviation budget and another projected $500,000 reduction in next year's spending plan.

The state 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.

"The runway closure is expected to be 90 days; however, we do not control the weather," Lackey said shortly after the funding announcement. "The total construction of all aspects will be longer."

Lackey could not be reached Monday evening for comment.

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 3,704-foot runway.

Markowski Excavating Inc., of Florence, submitted the low bid for the project, at $3,912,960.

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 reconstruction will extend down to the base of the runway, about three feet deep, and will include a new subsurface drainage system.

The lighting system will have new wiring and a control unit set outside the airport office building. Runway lighting is activated by pilots from their aircraft and turns off automatically after about 15 minutes.

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 prepping for takeoff a space that is off the runway surface, keeping that open for other craft.

Installation of a new fuel storage facility, with larger fuel tanks, now is scheduled for 2019 at the earliest, Lakakis said Monday.

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

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