VTrans seeking input on plan for state-owned airports

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BENNINGTON — VTrans officials heard comments and criticism likely relevant to many of the 10 state-owned airports during the first of nine information-gathering sessions planned during October.

"We want to hear your ideas," Michele Boomhower, the agency's director of Policy, Planning and Intermodal Development, told about 30 people who attended the meeting Tuesday at the Bennington Firehouse.

She and other officials said the agency is in the early stages of developing an updated Vermont Aviation System Plan covering the state's public-use airports over the next 20 years.

The most recent aviation plan was adopted in 2007.

The first step, they said, is to gather input from stakeholders on the status and condition of the airports, on the desired long-range goals, and on what is needed to enhance the economic viability of each facility, upgrade the infrastructure and prepare for technological changes in aviation.

In Bennington, the lack of a fixed-base operator business to oversee fueling and other services at the William Morse State Airport was a key concern, along with a lack of staffing on weekends when pilots visiting the area might be discouraged to find no one in the office.

Dan Delabruere, director of the state Aviation and Rail Program, said VTrans will soon put out a request for proposals for an FBO for the Morse Airport, seeking a business to be based at the facility and fill that role for the first time in several years.

However, he cautioned that "there are different levels" of service being provided by FBOs around the state, depending on the proposals received and the ability of the business to remain profitable.

"We will have to see what we get [from the RFPs]," Delabruere said.

Aviation education

John Likakis, one of several local aviation enthusiasts who've attempted to promote the local airport in recent years and pave the way for securing a new FBO, asked for help from VTrans in promoting aviation education through the Civil Air Patrol and, if possible, in public schools.

"What can the state do to help?" Likakis asked. "Can this be built into the plan?"

He and others argued that, with a nationwide shortage of young commercial pilots, and many aging pilots moving toward retirement, education and pilot training are become critical aviation issues.

Delabruere said the agency is well aware of the problem, and some assistance for education or training programs is possible. But he said funding for a new program would be difficult to secure given the current level of state funding and multiple competing transportation needs.

Nevertheless, he said, VTrans wants to consider all such ideas in preparing the next aviation plan.

Likakis said he'd like to see some funding and other support for developing education programs in schools.

Others advocated for a greater focus on pilot training, particularly in Southern Vermont, such as through a Professional Pilot Technology degree program now offered in Williston through Vermont Technical College.

And it was mentioned that aviation clubs based at local airports encourage an interest in aviation in young people, and those groups also would benefit from state funding and help in promoting events.

Runway approach safety

In answer to questions about the removal of trees that have grown up into the Morse Airport runway approach lines, Delabruere said VTrans is now negotiating a plan to cut trees on a parcel of state land managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

He added that the agency wants to implement annual assessments of tree-related problems around state airports, along with required management plans to ensure trees are cut or trimmed back as needed to meet Federal Aviation Administration runway guidelines.

Costa Pappis, of the VTrans Policy and Planning Section, said there are 100 airports in Vermont, including 16 open to the public. Those include the 10 owned by the state, the municipally owned Burlington International Airport and five privately owned airports.

In addition, he said, there are 61 private airports not open to the general public, 20 helipads and five seaplane landing sites.

Pappis said the plan adoption process will extend into late 2019, and also will include input from the Vermont Aviation Advisory Council and stakeholders, such as pilots, business owners based at airports and fixed-base operators.

Beyond the need for a maintenance and operations plan for the airports, Pappis said the FAA makes its funding decisions based on aviation plans and the readiness of proposed projects to go out to bid, such as the $4 million Morse Airport runway reconstruction project earlier this year.

The funding breakdown for such projects, the officials noted, is normally 90 percent federal money and 10 percent state funding.

Additional public input sessions were scheduled for Oct. 10 in Stowe, Oct. 11 in Lyndonville; Oct. 15 in Highgate, Oct. 17 in Middlebury; Oct. 18 in Rutland, Oct. 23 in Berlin; Oct. 25 in Coventry, and on Oct. 29 in Springfield.

Individuals not able to participate in the meetings can provide comments by contacting Rick Lucas, of McFarland Johnson, at rlucas@mjinc.com, or by calling 978-692-0522.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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