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Airport road project causes confusion

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | July 28, 2023 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — The closure of Boyer Avenue past the railroad tracks has been the talk of the town.

Is the road realignment a city project? A county project?

Nope, it's a Sandpoint Airport project.

The $550,000 project, which kicked off July 10, is part of a Federal Aviation Administration project to realign Boyer Avenue to improve safety at the airport. The project is expected to be completed Aug. 26.

The project shifts the roadway where it curves around the airport about 15 feet to the east, Sandpoint Airport Manager Dave Schuck said. By shifting the road over, the perimeter fence around the airport will fall outside the required FAA safety area for the airport's runway — instead of inside it.

The FAA designs safety areas at both ends of a runway that must be a certain length and width, with no obstructions in the runway safety zone, Schuck said.

"There's supposed to be nothing above ground in that area in case an airplane has a problem and runs up the end of the runway or has a problem getting onto the runway," he said. "They want that area to be clear, and nothing above ground."

However, when the road was realigned, whether due to miscommunication or changing standards, Schuck said the fence was put too close to the runway.

"The runway safety zones are to protect the public from things that happen at the airport, protect the airport from the public," he said. "So, especially when there's a road nearby, with the traffic that Boyer Road gets and Schweitzer Cutoff gets, there was a serious concern for the FAA because there's so much traffic there that they wanted to make sure that all the safety requirements were met.

When the city realigned Boyer to go around — instead of through — the airport in the 1990s, Schuck said a small segment along a curve on the northeastern side of the airport fell within a defined FAA safety area.

"It put the perimeter fence in that safety area, and it needs to be outside that area," Schuck said. "So what we're doing … is just kind of sharpening the curve a little bit so that we can move the fence outside the safety area for the runway and then everything will be back to normal."

When it's all finished, Schuck said it's likely that many people won't even notice that anything was done.

With a pending runway project a few years down the road, there was a need to move the fence out of the runway safety zone, Schuck said.

"As [airplane traffic] increases here in Sandpoint and the fact that the FAA is going to be putting several million dollars into rebuilding the runway here in about five years," he said. "They want to have all of the safety concerns handled prior to putting that money into rebuilding the runway."

Aviation-related user fees — taxes paid on aviation fuel and fees paid as part of airplane tickets — go into Airport Improvement Program funding for airports across the United States. That means those fees, not property taxes, are being used to fund the airport improvements.

"That's the beauty of the FAA funding this airport," Schuck said. "They're putting millions, literally millions and millions of dollars into this airport to make it safe. If the county owned it, or was trying to fund [the improvements], there'd be no way."

Roughly 97% of the project's cost is being funded by the FAA and the state of Idaho.

"Those funds are used to do exactly what we're doing here — negate safety issues, rebuild the runway, anything that to make the airports, in general, safer for the general public," Schuck said.

The project was originally planned to take place in 2022, but a wetter-than-normal construction season pushed the project back a year. Unfortunately, that meant a conflict with an ITD project on Fifth Avenue, just north of the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce building at the north end of Sandpoint.

With confusion over what the project entailed — and who was doing it, everyone from the city of Sandpoint to Bonner County Road and Bridge has received phone calls from residents wanting to know why their favorite backway is temporarily unavailable.

Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton said the city has gotten numerous phone calls and emails asking about the project. Some wanted to know what was behind the project, and others just wanted to know when it would be done, Stapleton told the Sandpoint City Council on July 19.

"It's unfortunate to have that going on at the same time that we've got ITD's project on 2/200 on Fifth Avenue as well," she said. "We do understand it's making north-south traffic backed up and difficult to navigate at times."