The Durango La Plata Airport – Ballot 1B
Not unlike air traffic controllers directing flights in and out of the world’s largest cities, La Plata County voters in the coming election are asked to determine what routes will most effectively guide La Plata County into the most positive and advantageous future for all of its residents.
You and I, along with other voters from all over La Plata County, will map out a significant part of our region’s destiny with our November votes on Ballot 1B, a much discussed proposal to fund and build a modern, new terminal at the Durango-La Plata County Airport (DRO). Whether you are for or against Ballot 1B, and whether it is approved or rejected by the majority of voters, the outcome of this vote has far reaching implications for our county.
What is proposed in this ballot and why is it such a hot topic?
There’s little disagreement about the fact that we’ve outgrown our airport. The terminal at DRO was built thirty years ago, when La Plata County’s population was about half of what it is today. City and county officials are united in believing that DRO in its present form is inadequate and needs attention. The terminal reached passenger capacity in 2008, serving 230,000 passengers per year. DRO now serves approximately 390,000 per year, approaching double its intended capacity.
Facilities are outdated and inefficient. Repairs are behind schedule. Equipment and personnel are jammed into any and all available space. The passenger security screening area isn’t up to TSA standards and there is no second bomb-screening device, so if ours goes down it represents a safety risk.
During peak travel times, over a dozen functional elements of the facility, including apron space for aircraft, baggage handling, and passenger waiting areas, function at Service Level “D, E, or F”- failing grades- as measured by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Fixing the problems at the terminal has been discussed since 2010. The disagreement isn’t about whether the fixes are needed, but rather what to do about our airport’s shortcomings. The options currently on the table are:
- Do nothing – not really an option, given safety concerns, the pressure of increasing air traffic, the inefficiency of check-in and security, delayed flights and missed connections – especially in winter when the fact that the airport has only one de-icing station (there’s currently no room for a another) comes into play.
- Make incremental changes- some in the community believe that some small changes- such as a second baggage carousel, or removing the souvenir shop to give TSA more room to operate – would be sufficient to fix the problems ailing the terminal.
- Repair, remodel and update the existing facility – or build a new terminal next to the existing one and demolish the current terminal. Proponents of this option say “save money; make use of what we have.”
- Build a new terminal on the east side of the runway, opposite the current terminal, rather than next to it, to better accommodate present needs while allowing room for future expansion if air traffic, tourism, and business in La Plata County continue to grow during coming decades.
DRO’s current terminal was designed for up to four aircraft landing with up to 50 passengers each. The new terminal would be sized to make room for the larger, more economically viable aircraft (such as the Airbus A319 or Boeing 737) that airlines are rapidly deploying to replace the smaller aircraft in their fleets. The new plan would provide ample room for five larger planes to park overnight, for two de-icing stations and for two baggage carousels. This plan would also allow for repurposing of the existing terminal and adding a new taxiway.
Option 4 is the proposal outlined in Ballot 1B, estimated to cost the citizens of La Plata County $40.4 million.
Proponents of 1B – new terminal on the east side of the runway say . . .
…that making small incremental changes is not the answer. With this kind of approach, fixing one problem often makes another worse. For instance, “the tent”- the temporary passenger holding structure – was erected to alleviate passenger overcrowding in the previously existing holding area. This temporary solution severely reduced the size of the baggage loading area, rendering it almost unmanageable during morning and mid-day rushes at DRO. And removing the souvenir shop to widen TSA would reduce the office space available for airline employees.
…that a repair, remodel and update of the existing facility – or building a new terminal next to the existing one and demolishing the current terminal – simply doesn’t allow for appropriate future expansion. If passenger counts continue to grow, we will run out of space on the existing side and be forced to move anyway – effectively making us build a new terminal twice instead of once.
…that sprucing up the existing terminal would simply be a temporary fix to deal only with the most immediate problems, but short-sighted and ultimately more expensive, not only in terms of dollars spent to meet both current and future airport needs, but also in terms of both tourism and business revenue lost due to ongoing inconvenience and upheaval during the years of construction. In addition, they claim that building a new terminal and demolishing the current one is wasteful – since repurposing the existing terminal for other uses is a viable option.
…that southwest Colorado has a unique and time sensitive opportunity to greatly improve its regional airport at modest local cost with a “yes” vote on Ballot Issue 1B, in light of the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is prepared to pay half of the bill.
… that according to a recent economic impact study, the airport is already a vital part of the local economy, a valuable economic asset we must not neglect, generating almost $5 million in local taxes through visitor spending, and accounting directly or indirectly for about $160 million in economic activity and 1,860 jobs in varied fields (construction, lodging, recreation, retail, manufacturing, etc…) in La Plata County alone, with additional positive impacts in neighboring counties.
…that the influx of an additional $40 million in FAA funds would benefit county residents by creating construction jobs and additional tax revenues from spending in the local economy.
….that the roughly 75% of registered votes in La Plata County who use the airport two or more times each year would travel less expensively and more efficiently.
…that investing in these airport improvements is investing in economic stability today and for the future. In interviews and studies of local businesses of all sizes and types, from home-based businesses to our area’s largest employers, good air service to our region has consistently been cited as critically important to their success. Proponents point out that ‘the future’ in terms of pressing airport needs that cannot be ignored, will arrive sooner rather than later – not a distant twenty to forty years from now, but five to ten.
…that the limitations of our current airport mean few airlines serve us, and possibly fewer still as smaller aircraft are phased out of air fleets. Proponents of 1B suggest that DRO’s inability to attract new carriers and routes results in a lack of competition that keeps fares high. Without the necessary improvements, businesses – and tourists – may consider locating in, and/or traveling to, more flight-accessible communities.
…that despite the fact that DRO is the primary commercial airport for our region, over half of all airline passengers going into and out of the Four Corners currently travel out of Albuquerque or Denver rather than DRO, resulting in the loss of significant revenue to our local economy.
…that this isn’t about promoting inappropriate growth in our area, but rather providing for the needs of people and businesses already here while allowing for sustainable terminal expansions to accommodate inevitable future growth.
Opponents of 1B – new terminal on the east side of the runway say…
…that officials have not adequately explored all the possibilities of remodeling our current facility and this would be the most cost effective option. Expanding to the north and south would address the lack of space for passenger ticketing, baggage claim and passenger loading.
…that the current proposal is excessive in size and scope, that we should go back to the original airport design’s built-in plan for growth with a much lower renovation and expansion price tag of $10 to $15 million.
…that the airport expansion as proposed in Ballot 1B cannot deliver all that it promises. It does not guarantee lower ticket prices or expanded scheduling options. It can’t prevent flight delays that are dependent on weather. It doesn’t guarantee more baggage personnel, as this is an airline responsibility, rather than an airport responsibility.
…that a property tax increase does not tax all who use the airport, giving tourists a “free ride.” Shouldn’t tourists pay part of this improvement cost?
…shouldn’t San Juan County, New Mexico, and Montezuma, Archuleta and San Juan counties help fund DRO since it serves their populations, as well as our own, and boosts the regional economy? These neighboring counties will be big time beneficiaries of an airport expansion funded by La Plata County.
…that an increase in property taxes could increase rent in an area already struggling with a housing shortage. Is this the time to increase property taxes?
…shouldn’t officials look at a mix of financing options, not just property taxes?
…that there are simply too many tax increases on the ballot this year, from local school and road initiatives to the possibility of a single payer healthcare system statewide, and that the airport is not the highest priority for La Plata County at this time.
…that there will be a high probability of cost overruns associated with airport modernization and expansion as projects of this scope and size rarely come in on budget.
…that the community has not been adequately informed of the costs associated with both immediate and future phases of the project as proposed in Ballot 1B.
…that many residents don’t want and won’t benefit by an improved airport – it will primarily benefit tourism and ski industry interests, bringing more tourists, new residents, more businesses and increasing traffic and parking problems. Some residents say they don’t want Durango to grow anymore, so why make it easy.
So where does ‘modest local cost’ enter the equation given that new terminal expansion is estimated to cost $80 – $85 million?
Proponents point out the timeliness and cost-effectiveness of expanding and modernizing the airport now rather than later. The Federal Aviation Administration is willing to match local funds with federal funds – paying up to $40 million for our new terminal. If La Plata County voters approve a bond issue this year (the $40.4 Million Ballot 1B), the FAA is standing by with grant money to pay for roughly half of the remaining improvements. If DRO does not take advantage of this opportunity now, the grant funds may go to other communities that are ready to match them.
Proponents say Ballot 1B calls for a ‘small’ tax increase. How so? In order to secure enough grant funding from the FAA to pay for half the project, our county has to prove it can pay the remaining half. Part of that local match will come from user fees – charges that all passengers who use DRO pay, whether they are from Durango, Bayfield, Ignacio… or Cortez, Farmington, or Pagosa Springs. With federal money and user fees paying for roughly half the project, the maximum $40.4 million share that Ballot Issue 1B proposes to be paid via property taxes boils down to slightly less than $5 per month for the average homeowner (owning a home valued at $400,000). Businesses, second homes, and gas industry-owned wells would pay more than two-thirds of the property taxes (less than $40 per month for average business). The property tax increase ends (or ‘sunsets’) as soon as the bonds are paid off – about 20 years after bonds are issued.
Could the terminal and larger tarmac be funded in other ways?
A sales tax would bring tourist dollars into the mix, but it would also be an added burden on locals and it is not a reliable source of funding for a fixed debt burden. In addition, the CSU Study 2016 found that a sales tax would hurt low income residents much more than a property tax- it is not an equitable solution.
An airport authority might be formed with other jurisdictions, including San Juan County, New Mexico, but such an authority would have no taxing capabilities under Colorado law. In addition, forming an airport authority could take several years, a time frame that might jeopardize DRO’s place in line for the FAA matching grant funds.
Proponents say that since the gas industry still pays a large (although declining) share of the county’s property taxes, increasing property taxes puts the least burden on county residents.
Is the grant money guaranteed?
Opponents say that since the FAA is a federal agency, grant funding would be dependent on Congress approving the FAA’s annual budget. Proponents say that the FAA has made clear its intention to help with the project, and county and city officials said they’re confident the FAA will come through with the funds. In the unlikely event FAA funds did not come through, local taxation would not occur.
Making sense of the dollars and cents – the details behind the numbers:
- $40.4 million from property tax mill levy – Ballot 1B – citizens of La Plata County
- $40 million – Matching Funds – Federal Aviation Administration
- $4-6 million User Fees at $4 a ticket
This represents the estimated $80-$85 million project cost for DRO’s new airport terminal, as outlined DRO-La Plata County (DRO) Master Plan designed to handle up to 400,000 passengers – our current capacity. Any further future terminal expansion beyond this capacity would be fully funded through facility charges and grants.
Ballot Issue 1B is indeed controversial, and, given the fact that we will also be making an important Roads and Bridges funding decision in the coming election, the timing is challenging.
I’ve presented here a number of facts and opinions, from a variety of sources and perspectives, both for and against. I believe it is vitally important for us be fully informed and aware – because the decisions we make now will guide La Plata County, for better or worse, into a future that will arrive in what seems to be the proverbial blink of an eye!
There are many valid pros and cons for all us to consider – here’s to a feast of food for thought!
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Links and Resources:
1 – CSU study 2016 “Estimating the Economic and Fiscal Contribution of Durango Regional Airport to the La Plata County and Regional Economies” by Harvey Cutler, PhD and Martin Shields, PhD: https://goo.gl/CdxOmL
2 – Durango-La Plata County (DRO) Master Plan, “Destination:DRO”: https://goo.gl/8YIgXb
3 – Article, “Durango-La Plata County Airport expansion contentious before vote,” Mary Shinn, Durango Herald, September 24, 2016: https://goo.gl/HKCSLB
4 – La Plata County, services and property tax information: http://co.laplata.co.us
5 – La Plata County Assessor’s Office (for property valuation information): https://goo.gl/jCzwgZ
**Durango Airport Image Courtesy of Gunnar Conrad