Runway is top priority at airport

FERNANDINA BEACH - The City Commission voted Sept. 4 to forgo new fire equipment at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport this year to repair a crumbling runway.

Commissioners agreed to provide $650,000 to match the $650,000 the Florida Department of Transportation has offered to help resurface Runway 13-31. However, they don't know yet where the city will get the money.

FDOT in 1995 resurfaced the runway, one of the three at the airport, at no cost to the city. But the experimental asphalt surface failed and is disintegrating into gravel.

Repaving is estimated to cost $1 to $1.5 million, depending on the materials used.

Airport Manager Richard Johnson told commissioners Sept. 4 FDOT won't fix the runway, however, because the agency is now responsible for maintaining a different runway at the airport.

The state is offering a different solution, he said.

FDOT had earmarked $400,000 to build a small fire building at the airport this year, and another $300,000 for a fire truck to be housed there. The city would have provided $100,000 toward the building and $60,000 toward the fire truck.

FDOT now is proposing to give the city $650,000 to repair the runway during Fiscal Year 2007-08 with the city providing the same amount, Johnson said. FDOT will provide money for the fire building and truck later.

Commissioners didn't dispute the need to get the runway fixed, but several questioned the expenditure.

"We just took out a loan for $850,000. You want $650,000 more?" Mayor Bill Leeper asked Johnson.

Commissioners on Aug. 7 approved borrowing $850,000 to pay for airport improvements.

Commissioner Ron Sapp agreed.

"The airport is an enterprise fund, and I'm concerned about the debt being generated by that enterprise fund," Sapp said.

Johnson said the runway is critical to the airport because it's the only one rated for instrument use and it's angled toward the prevailing winds.

McGill Aviation Vice President Sean McGill told commissioners 13-31 is the most used runway at the airport, and without it, business pilots would likely opt to land in Jacksonville when weather is bad rather than land in Fernandina without instruments.

"Not having that runway makes the airport less attractive to business travelers," he said.