WATERLOO — Maintenance costs and the prospect of nearby industrial development are threatening to close one of three runways at the Waterloo Regional Airport.
But local pilots and representatives of Livingston Aviation Inc. descended on the airport board Tuesday to serve notice they won’t let runway 6-24 disappear without a fight.
“Our concern is there’s a concerted effort behind the scenes to make a decision to close this runway,” said Joel Harris, a private pilot. “We want a chair at the table.
“I’m sorry if our underwear’s in a twist over the thing, but it’s a big deal to us,” he added. “It’s not only a safety issue but it’s an economic issue for this airport.”
Rick Young, of Livingston Aviation, the airport’s fixed base operator, said the third runway is vital to the general aviation community, which represents 93 percent of landings and takeoffs.
“If the airport commission and the director are concerned about economic development with our airport, you need to keep 6-24 open,” Young said.
Airport Board Chairman Hugh Field said he shared a desire to keep the runway open but called the debate premature because a pavement assessment detailing the cost of repairing the runway isn’t expected until January.
“Let’s see what the heck it costs and then we can do a cost-benefit analysis,” Field said. “There has been no decision made by this commission or by the City Council.”
The general aviation group said Waterloo is the only airport in Iowa with three runways. Runway 6-24, the shortest at 5,500 feet, is important when strong crosswinds make the other two runways unsafe for small aircraft landings.
But the runway, constructed in 1944, is in poor repair and has major cracks. Airport Director Keith Kaspari has been closing the runway over the winter months due to its condition and to protect it from further damage from snow plows.
The Federal Aviation Administration ruled runway 6-24 is not eligible for federal funding due to coverage provided by the other two runways. Kaspari said the airport currently operates on “razor-thin margins” and does not have money to maintain the third runway on its own.
“I’m looking at basic math, folks,” he said. “We don’t have it. We just don’t have it.”
That means any repair costs — initial estimates have put the bill as high as $2 million to $4 million — likely would fall on local property taxpayers in the form of a bond issue. But an ordinance adopted by the City Council in 1999 requires the airport to stand on its own without a city property tax subsidy.
Harris said it’s time for the city to reverse that policy.
“This city should fund this thing,” he said. “There’s funding available if you deem it important.”
A second issue affecting runway 6-24 is the city’s desire to develop land along the west side of the airport near Leversee Road for industrial development with rail access. Developing that area is more complicated if the city has to work around the 6-24 runway protection zone.
Community Planning and Development Director Noel Anderson noted the city already approved a development agreement for Standard Distribution to construct a 50,000-square-foot warehouse on the southwest corner of the airport.
The firm is considering expanding that operation fourfold, while five or six additional prospects are interested in developing in that area if a railroad spur can be constructed to serve the sites, he said.
The ideal path for the rail spur goes through runway 6-24’s protection zone, but Anderson said the city and consultant’s are now looking at a way to reroute the line around that zone.
Steve Dust, an airport board member and director of the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance and Chamber, said he believes the airport property could be attractive to new employers.
“We’ve got 300 acres around our airport that’s been planned for industrial development,” Dust said. “One of the things that’s becoming more and more important again is rail service.”
But Livingston Aviation’s Tim Newton countered, “You shouldn’t do economic development at the cost of the airport.”
Developing the property could also hurt the airport’s budget, which currently sees the largest portion of its operating revenue come from leasing its land for crop production.
The city is required to reimburse the airport for the fair market value of any land it takes for industrial development. That money, likely generated by tax-increment financing, would be put in a designated account for an FAA-eligible airport project.
But the city and airport officials have not publicly discussed any plans to offset the lost farm rental income the airport would incur.
Newton said he hopes all of those issues are fully discussed before the airport board or City Council makes any decisions on runway 6-24.
“I don’t think there’s been an open discussion of the possibilities of different ways to fund the runway and an honest discussion of the value the runway brings to the airport,” he said.