Project To Improve Runway From Comair Crash Remains in Limbo

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Plans to revamp the runway that was the
focus of the deadly Comair 5191 crash have been complicated by
gubernatorial politics and a bitter land dispute, and airport
officials may soon have to make some difficult choices about the
The general aviation strip accounts for two-thirds of the
traffic at Blue Grass Airport, and director Michael Gobb says it
has outlived its usefulness and needs to be immediately lengthened
and repaved.
At issue is whether to spend $9 million to do that in the
runway's current location, where it intersects the longer
commercial runway or to accelerate plans for a $27 million project
to lengthen the strip even further and separate it from the other.
Gobb cites the World Equestrian Games, coming to Lexington in
2010, as a pressing reason to do the larger project now.
"We have one shot at impressing the world," Gobb said.
The runway in question, not intended for commercial planes, was
the one that Comair pilots mistakenly traveled down in the predawn
darkness Aug. 27, 2006, on a flight intended for Atlanta. Unable to
make a proper takeoff from the 3,500-foot strip, the plane clipped
trees and a perimeter fence before crashing, killing 49 of the 50
people on board.
While the Federal Aviation Administration has signaled it will
likely provide $7-$10 million for its part of the runway
construction project, the airport hit a snag earlier this year
seeking a match from Kentucky's General Assembly. With
gubernatorial politics looming, many local projects - including the
Lexington airport - fell through the cracks during a special
Gobb remains hopeful the money will get approved next year, but
on Jan. 1, the airport must decide whether to commit nearly $2.7
million to prepare the bidding process. If the state money doesn't
go through early next year, in time to allow ground to be broken by
spring, Gobb says the airport won't be able to finish the project
in time for the games and may have to look at the cheaper repaving
project as a short-term fix.
Although few lawmakers have publicly criticized the proposal,
there are differing views about where it should rank on Kentucky's
priority list and whether the equestrian games is sufficient reason
to accelerate the airport's master plan.
"I'm always skeptical when government officials or the power
elites say, 'We have to do this because of the economic opportunity
down the road,"' said Rep. Jim Wayne, a Democrat whose district
includes Louisville's airport. "A lot of times that's just a
rouse, a way to get their money and make people feel panicky."
Jim Waters, policy director for the Bluegrass Institute for
Public Policy Solutions, a conservative think tank, says if the
state is going to be involved in local projects, high-traffic areas
such as airports where safety is paramount would be a reasonable
place to spend the money.
"This is a good example of why policy makers need to prioritize
spending, rather than just go at it haphazardly," Waters said.
Besides the need to get public funds, the airport still hasn't
acquired the land where the proposed runway would go. Nick Bentley,
who owns the farm where the Comair plane crashed, contends the
airport is lowballing him, but Gobb insists Bentley is seeking a
purchase price more than three times its appraised value.
Bentley says he expects the airport will use its power as a
governmental entity to condemn the property for public good, but he
has sued, claiming the airport has devalued the property by halting
his development plans. He says he would like to build a horse
quarantine operation there, which he figures also would be
extremely useful for the 2010 games.
"The bottom line is they took my property without taking it,"
Bentley said. "They just put out a plan that shows the runway and
hangars on my farm, and they don't want to pay for it - at least
until they absolutely have to. I'm in limbo."
Gobb says the airport is waiting to receive the results of an
environmental study before seeking to acquire the property through
condemnation. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown says the agency also
needs that before it can grant the funding request.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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