VTrans gets final OK to lengthen Middlebury airport runway
EAST MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Agency of Transportation has landed an Act 250 permit to begin expansion of the Middlebury State Airport runway, a plan that drew fire from neighbors who believe the upgrades could bring larger planes, heavier and larger aircraft traffic, and more noise to what is now a modest airfield in a residential area east of Route 116.
Guy Rouelle, aviation program director for VTrans, anticipates the runway work will begin next May and last up to five months.
VTrans officials have said the project is all about increasing safety at what is one of the shortest state airport runways in Vermont. The $3 million plan calls for:
• Removing some trees, primarily at the southern takeoff/approach of the runway, in order to maintain adequate sight visibility for pilots landing at and leaving from the airport. VTrans negotiated easements with the owners of 14 affected properties.
• Extending the 2,500-foot runway by 700 feet (to the north) for a total of 3,200 feet, and widening it from 50 to 60 feet. The adjacent taxiing apron will also be extended and slightly reconfigured to safely complement the runway, according to VTrans officials.
• Reconstructing and repaving the runway and taxiing apron. The runway/taxi surfaces were last repaved more than two decades ago and can no longer be satisfactorily patched based on Federal Aviation Administration standards, according to VTrans officials.
“The end game really was, we had many, many years of trees growing up in the approach surfaces of the airport, and we need to be able to get those trees cleared,” Rouelle said. “The runway is not only entirely too short for the mix of aircraft going in there, the pavement was giving way to a point where we needed to refurbish them anyway. In addition, our taxiways were not to any type of FAA standard at all.”
Rouelle said 90 percent of the project will be funded through a grant from the FAA’s Airway Trust Fund, which is money generated through the sale of airline tickets and air cargo fees. The other 10 percent will come from Vermont’s transportation fund, according to Rouelle.
Vermont’s airports system generates more than $2 million in revenues annually that has to be used, by federal law, for aviation purposes, according to Rouelle.
The state this year applied for 10 aviation-related grants through the FAA, including one for Middlebury, Rouelle noted.
The tentative project schedule calls for clearing trees at the runway approach this winter, when the ground is frozen. The runway and taxing apron work is expected to get started in May, according to Rouelle, who believes the community will like the end product.
“This is kind of a 20-year fix to that airport,” Rouelle said. “This is a huge milestone for this airport.”
But not a welcome milestone for some airport neighbors.
“Given the expected growth and increased traffic at the Middlebury Airport, we can expect increased conflicts to arise between airport activity and local residents and businesses who are near the airport, especially since the town of Middlebury does not seem to be doing much to limit development that is incompatible with ongoing airport activity through zoning regulations,” said Ross Conrad of nearby Dancing Bee Gardens.
Burnham Drive resident Lewis Holmes is a member of the Middlebury Airport Neighborhood Association. He continues to have concerns about the approval process for a project that he believes could have a profound impact on airport neighbors.
Holmes said the noise study that was part of the project application was a “one-size-fits-all-model that averages sound over 24 hours and 365 days per year, designed for an airport in Boston or Chicago.” The Middlebury Airport traffic, he contended, occurs overwhelmingly during daylight hours and warmer weather.
He also noted that project boosters touted the potential economic development benefits of having a longer runway, thus tempering VTrans assertions that the proposed work was all about safety.
Town officials seems to echo the economic development benefits, according to Holmes.
“The (Middlebury) selectboard as a whole, as existed prior to the recent election, was fairly dismissive of neighborhood concerns, repeatedly emphasizing the theoretical economic benefits of any airport expansion for Middlebury without full discussion of the concerns of East Middlebury,” Holmes said. “Fortunately, in contrast to the overall tone, certain members of the selectboard were very responsive, thoughtful and collaborative during discussions held in public and private meetings.”
Jamie Gaucher, director of the Middlebury Office of Business Development & Innovation, acknowledged the runway work could help business growth at the airport and provide a more valuable amenity to prospective entrepreneurs.
“Access to infrastructure is always important from an economic development perspective, and I’m glad that this project is moving forward. I also think it’s important to recognize that this was very much a team effort,” Gaucher said. “Folks in Middlebury and Addison County have been trying for decades to improve the airport and make it more safe, and now that some of this work is about to happen the community will certainly benefit.”
Burnham Drive resident Prem Prakash took issue with the project on financial terms.
“As a fiscal conservative, I don’t think $3 million in taxpayer money should subsidize any project, anywhere, earmarked for private businesses and individual hobbyists,” Prakash said. “Let the marketplace and private funds provide the needed financing. If our federal and state governments, in their infinite wisdom, insist that our money must be spent, I guess I would rather see it go to our airport than many of the other things at which they throw our cash.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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