While much has been made of the benefits of the SMART commuter train, county supervisors this week will cast their first vote on a proposal that would have far more immediate — and possibly more significant — impact on the local economy. Supervisors will be taking a preliminary vote Tuesday on the long-awaited expansion of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
As it is, the main runway isn't long enough to meet the needs of modern mid-sized jets, the kind that are preferred by some carriers. Among those is Frontier Airlines, which has indicated an interest in starting flights out of Sonoma County to Denver. Such an east-west connection would provide a critical link for local residents and businesses as travelers now can only use the airport to go north to Oregon and Washington and south to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The county is also in talks with Alaska Airlines about adding flights.
But to make this happen, the county needs to extend the main runway 885 feet to 6,000 feet and add 200 feet to the second runway. The $84 million project also calls for construction of a new passenger terminal, control tower, air cargo facility and fire station.
The project is needed not only for economic development purposes but from a public safety perspective as well. The V-shape design of the runways, which both start at the same point, does not meet current federal safety standards. Moreover, the runway extension does not require significant additional investment by taxpayers. Most of the project will be paid for through funds provided by the Federal Aviation Administration. Federal funds also may be used to cover the start-up costs for Frontier's service to Denver.
So what's not to like about this?
Here's what. Extending the runways will have an impact on the airport grounds. There's no question about that. The same is true of the additional noise that will be created by more jet flights.
The county has gone to great lengths to address both issues, including paying for the soundproofing of homes closest to the runways. Airport officials also are looking into securing an agreement among carriers not to have late-night flights.
Airport officials have done a reasonable job of addressing these concerns. But criticisms persist. Recently, someone began circulating fliers in the Windsor area contending that jets would be flying over head "every hour" and that students at Windsor High School would be put "at risk."
Meanwhile, some have equated the local airport's growth to that of San Jose's. Nonsense. Readers shouldn't buy into these fear tactics. The county currently has only five commercial flights a day, and it wasn't that long ago we were reduced to none. With luck, the expansion plan will lead to an increase to 10 to 12 flights a day by 2015. The plan would allow up to 21 commercial flights a day by 2030.
We encourage readers to study the environmental impact report that's available at www.sonomacountyairport.org and decide for themselves. We believe most, too, will be persuaded that the benefits of this project far outweigh the negatives for the entire region — and that the supervisors should move forward with this plan without further delay.