Hard deadlines sought for airport projects, budget

Thu, 02/27/2020 - 6:30pm
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Town officials met with representatives of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation at the Block Island Airport to hammer away at some specific issues that have been needing attention: installing a more reliable water supply for the airport and its tenants, coming up with a plan to create more revenue for an airport that is consistently in the red, and a request to see a budget that shows some funding will be allocated for work on the airport’s parking apron.

RIAC officials told Town Councilor Sven Risom, Town Manager Jim Kern, fixed base operator staff member Andy Transue, and local pilot Henry duPont, that on two of those issues — a plan for a town water supply, and the budget numbers — would be provided to the town no later than June 1. The meeting took place at the airport on Wednesday, Feb. 26.

The meeting began with a discussion on how to create more revenue at the airport, but given this was an initial discussion there was no final resolution to that issue.

What was discussed was monetizing parking at the airport and using some of the space for storage, particularly for contractors who are constantly having to bring their tool trailers back and forth from the mainland.

“Construction storage is something really needed out here,” said Transue.

“The reason I find that acceptable is that this is an airport-related use,” said duPont. “These contractors fly back and forth. This is an airport-related function.”

“And they’re vital to the community,” said Transue. He said he was asked all the time by contractors if they could store their trailers at the airport lot.

As for the parking, Transue said that some of the cars in the lot stay there for weeks and months at a time, in part because the parking was free. Those present were toeing a fine line, knowing that free parking at both the Block Island Airport and the Westerly Airport was obviously helpful for New England Airlines’ business.

Kern said that those who were going to park “for days or weeks don’t get prime real estate.”

“There are a lot of people who fly over here for two days and they’ve always had free parking,” said duPont.

A hybrid solution was discussed: long-term parking in one section at the airport that would charge a fee, and local, short-term parking section that would be free.

“Part of it could be a simple gate and lock, and another could could be” accessed by a gate, said Risom.

“The business model will look into all that,” said RIAC representative Christine Vitt.

RIAC representative Jeff Goulart said the most important issue for the parking was what he termed “control” over the parking, or “we’re going to end up with abandoned vehicles.”

Transue said a more organized parking structure may also finally accommodate the customers for Bethany’s Airport Diner. “We’re also under obligation to provide parking for Bethany’s, and we’ve never been able to do that,” said Transue.

Goulart said that RIAC was talking to a Rhode Island company in the parking business, which is currently working out a plan for the Westerly Airport. The immediate concern for Goulart was that creating a parking plan for Block Island “might be a significant investment with a limited return.”

duPont said there was a need to create additional parking, as well.

Transue then walked the RIAC officials through a plan he had designed to connect the airport to the town’s water supply. There is a hydrant located near the Boy Scout Camp off Connecticut Avenue that is available. Kern said that he had talked to Water Company Supt. John Breunig, and “he said that’s not a particularly difficult job.” The airport is currently on a well, and a faulty pump has interrupted the water supply a few times, particularly over one extended stretch on Memorial Day weekend last year.

“We’re on board to try to solve it,” said RIAC’s Vitt. She said that RIAC will respond to the town with a “project definition report” by June 1. She cautioned however, that if RIAC sought federal funds for the project, it might not happen until late 2021 — “if we’re lucky,” she said. Being connected to town water would also give the airport its own fire suppression system that could begin to tackle a fire before the trucks arrived.

“That would be a real advantage,” said Transue.

duPont also questioned how much RIAC was allocating for a capital improvement project to improve and expand the airport’s apron. duPont had documents that showed a total of $1,150,000 over three years that did not have any clear definition of what was to be done for that amount.

Goulart said he was unaware of those figures, but handed duPont documentation that showed a total of $3.8 million would be allocated for the project between 2021 and 2025.

The RIAC officials said they would provide Kern with supporting documentation on the budget, also by June 1.