$ 16M Tower is Awaiting Taxpayers at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport

PITTSTON TWP. -- Escalating construction costs at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport ate up funding for a traffic-control tower, said the former airport business manager leaving Luzerne and Lackawanna county taxpayers to pay another $ 16 million.

Also, county commissioners who make up the airport board have approved the project and a long-term reimbursement plan by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a letter from the airport director.

"The Bi-County Airport Board of Commissioners, after meeting with Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski, has decided to design and construct an Air Traffic Control Tower for the Federal Aviation Administration," wrote airport director Barry Centini in a Dec. 1 letter sent to county officials.

Centini was out of town and could not be reached for comment Friday.

However, four of the six commissioners on the board said contrary to the wording in the letter no decision has been made and they have no lease agreement with the FAA.

The board's chairman, Luzerne County Commissioner Todd Vonderheid, said Centini misspoke in the letter.

"We have not made a formal decision," said vice chairman Lackawanna County Commissioner Robert Cordaro. The letter is apprising the counties of what is anticipated regarding the tower and the counties' funding obligations.

Two other commissioners also stated they had not voted on the tower.

"I don't know if a decision was made, I can't tell you," said Lackawanna County Commissioner Mike Washo.

Luzerne County Commissioner Steve Urban said he hopes the topic will be put on the agenda for the board's Dec. 15 meeting.

Nonetheless, he supports construction of the tower. "If (Centini) needs the money for the design, I'd be happy to approve it if this is the only path that we have to follow."

But had the airport kept terminal construction costs under control it would not have to take this route, countered Wy Gowell, the airport's former business manager and assistant director.

Gowell, who resigned earlier this year after 16 years with the airport, said the tower was initially included in the construction of the terminal. But, he said, the "escalation of the terminal cost was hidden by taking the tower out of it."

The latest figure provided by the airport places the terminal and aircraft apron parking area cost at $ 55,064,007. The apron makes up more than $ 12 million of the total. Initial estimates for the terminal ranged from $ 20 million to $ 30 million.

The airport was to use approximately $ 4.5 million in federal Airport Improvement Program funds for the tower construction in 2000, recalled Gowell.

In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration was going to pay for tower equipment and "leapfrog" existing equipment into the tower to be built on land east of the main runway. All totaled, he estimated the tower's cost between $ 6 million and $ 8 million.

The airport paid approximately $ 60,000 for a tower study and budgeted another $ 400,000 for the design and site selection, he said.

A November 2000 document titled "Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport Capital Improvement Liabilities," indicated the airport had two tower projects budgeted -- $ 66,141 for an analysis and study to renovate the existing tower, and $ 405,000 for the design and environmental assessment for a new tower.

Between $ 25,000 and $ 30,000 was spent on the tower design before "it just stopped dead," Gowell said.

Several years ago in a caucus with the board, Centini presented a new pro forma plan on the terminal and the tower was not included. Gowell recollected that at that time the director said "the FAA is doing the tower."

But that was not the case, Gowell maintained.

"That was always their position, You build it and we'll lease it,'" he said.

Cordaro disputed Gowell's statement about the cost escalations eliminating the tower from the terminal project. "He's not even close."

He and Vonderheid said the counties won't commit any funds to the tower without a lease commitment by the FAA.

"The only basis we'll do it is if it's paid in full to the penny by the FAA," Cordaro said.

Luzerne County won't come up with its half for the project, "unless we have a surety the FAA is going to pay for the cost," said Vonderheid.

Until a new tower is built, the old one will stay in place and the airport will have to maintain the terminal below it as well as the newly built terminal, the commissioners pointed out.

Kanjorski, who has secured approximately $ 39 million in federal funds for the airport, said it was his understanding that the tower was included early on. "Part of that original design showed the existence of a traffic-control tower on the other side of the airport."

Within the past six months he was informed that the tower plan had not moved along. He held a closed- door conference call with the board after its Oct. 4 meeting as a result. At the time he was informed the FAA had decided not to pay for the tower and the commissioners also didn't want to pay for it, he said.

Hearing that, he said, his concern was that the airport have a tower and that the FAA staff it because of talks about possible cutbacks. "My interest was keeping the controllers here and keeping the facility first rate."

The congressman said that he later met again at the airport with FAA officials and commissioners Vonderheid and Cordaro and airport administration to discuss the tower situation. He acknowledged that one of the options talked about was having the counties build the tower and lease it to the FAA. Included in the lease would be a "hold harmless clause" stating that the FAA is fully responsible for the lease if it decides to leave the tower.

FAA spokesman Jim Peters confirmed the airport had submitted a projection authorization for the tower this week. The paperwork included lease and construction cost information. The FAA is reviewing the paperwork and will present its findings to the airport which could lead to a lease agreement, said Peters.

Read a copy of the letter requesting money from the counties for the construction of a new air traffic control tower. Go to www.timesleader.com.


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