University Park Airport Hopes to Start Control Tower Construction Next Year

BENNER TOWNSHIP -- University Park Airport officials hope to be ready next year to begin construction of a $7 million on-site air-traffic control tower and instrument landing system.

But they don't know yet if the money will be there to pay for it.

And Bellefonte Airport officials are worried that adding the tower will increase traffic at University Park Airport -- and hurt business at the Bellefonte facility.

"The tower can negatively impact us," said Jeff Elnitski, whose family has owned and operated the Bellefonte Airport for 19 years. "We are not in their thoughts. We want to be in their thoughts."

University Park Airport is the busiest airport in the nation without an on-site site air-traffic control tower. More than 270,000 passengers passed through the airport in 2004 with 40 daily commercial flights and more general-aviation flights.

Aircraft approaches and departures are now directed by controllers in New York.

Bryan Rodgers, the airport's director, said he's looking to the federal government to pay for the tower.

U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-Pleasantville, says he knows the tower is crucial to the growth of the airport and the safety of passengers.

"We're certainly going to fight for a reasonable amount of money," said Chris Tucker, communications director for Peterson's Washington office.

But expecting the federal government to finance the entire $7 million cost -- $5 million for the tower and $2 million for an instrument landing system -- may be asking too much, Tucker said.

"I think $5 million is a lot to ask for any entity, public or private," he said.

Getting the system in place may require several parties -- including local, state and federal sources -- to come together to fund the project, Tucker said.

University Park submitted an application to the Federal Aviation Administration three years ago. It will finalize its environmental assessment later this year. Then it needs only final FAA approval to begin construction, Rodgers said.

"That's been a long time. We see a need for the tower now," he said.

Rodgers said initial work on the project has been able to proceed because the airport could commingle its funds with money from other sources, but the tower itself must be constructed with federal money from the FAA Facility and Equipment Project funds.

"The airport is going to take the project as far as we can with the funding that is available to us," he said.

Meanwhile, the Elnitskis said the economic impact of the tower on the Bellefonte Airport, just miles from University Park Airport, is being overlooked.

The addition of the tower makes it likely traffic at University Park will increase, John Elnitski Sr. said.

Takeoffs and landings at the Bellefonte Airport would not be directed by the University Park tower, but pilots would contact the tower for traffic advisories, Rodgers said. Airspace for both airports will change to a Class D classification, requiring all pilots have two-way radios.

While the tower wouldn't direct Bellefonte Airport traffic, it will increase traffic at University Park, thereby increasing the number of planes in the air, John Elnitski said. That could limit opportunities for takeoff and landings at Bellefonte and increase the noise.

"Oh, they're going to choke us," John Elnitski said.

Business at the Bellefonte Airport relies on flight lessons, fuel sales and other odd jobs such as towing banners over football games at Beaver Stadium.

If planes utilizing the airport face longer waits to take off or land, it could present a situation that would make the cost of stopping at the airport for fuel, or of taking flying lessons there, prohibitive, said Jeff Elnitski.

"If they're not going to use the airport, that's the economic impact," he said.

But Rodgers said the tower is vital to the future of University Park Airport.

"The airport needs to be able to serve the growth of this region," he said.

Jennifer Thomas can be reached at 231-4638.

State College Centre Daily Times


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