By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN How to fix the dilapidated runway at the Winsted Municipal Airport has been on the minds of Winsted City Council members, and decision time is inching closer.
“Right now we’re in a holding pattern pun intended waiting for the environmental assessment,” City Administrator Dan Tienter said at Tuesday’s work session.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to publish a draft of the environmental assessment soon, likely by the end of March. Copies will be mailed to affected landowners, and will also be available at city hall, the library, and the airport building.
The public will then have 30 days to provide comments before the city council can determine which route to take.
The total cost to pave is expected to be about $7,564,700, while the cost to rehabilitate the turf would be about $3,650,800.
Either way, the federal government plans to pay 90 percent, while the rest could be funded by the state and the city. The amount the state will fund is subject to an annual funding decision by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
Reconstructing the turf runway would involve relocating both branches of the Northern Natural Gas pipeline and mitigating 1.4 acres of wetland.
In contrast, paving the runway would necessitate relocating one branch of the Northern Natural Gas pipeline, mitigating 1.3 acres of wetland, relocating the Luce Line State Trail, relocating Cable Avenue, and acquiring 65.4 acres of land, including relocation of a portion of Winsted Farmers Co-op Creamery.
Council Member Patty Fitzgerald said she does not want to make the co-op move if management is interested in staying at the current location.
Tienter said that from conversations he’s had with co-op representatives, it appeared they were open to finding out more information, and wanted to know exactly what would need to take place before forming a final opinion.
Melissa Underwood of Bolton & Menk engineering firm said most of the co-op could remain in place, and only the building that is in the runway protection zone would need to be relocated. The convenience store/gas station portion would need to move.
Council Member Tom Ollig said it is important to keep the co-op in town, because otherwise the city only has one option for gasoline.
Mayor Steve Stotko voiced advantages and disadvantages to paving.
“I think paving would be good for the city,” he said. “. . . I think it will attract more business, eventually.”
However, he added that he’d hate to worsen the relationship with Winsted Township due to Cable Avenue relocation.
“Also, what if one property owner refuses to sell? Then what do we do? Do we take it?” he asked.
Fitzgerald asked about the size of planes that would be allowed on the runway if paved.
Underwood said the size would be the same as now, but paving would give more access to the airport.
“Now, the weather has to be perfect for them to land there,” she said.
Last year, the runway was closed for a total of 11 weeks.
“Typically, the advantage of a paved runway is that it’s more reliable,” Tienter said.
Underwood noted that new turf would also improve accessibility, and “Eleven weeks is kind of the extreme.”
With a rehabilitated turf runway, the annual increase in airport use is estimated at 2 percent. With a paved runway, it is 4 percent. Underwood noted that some insurance companies won’t let planes land on a turf runway.
“I like the idea of [paving]; it appeals to me. But, it’s a huge cost,” Fitzgerald said.
After the environmental assessment is adopted, it is valid for three years.
Council members agreed they will be making a decision sooner rather than later, due to maintenance costs and safety.
“The runway is in such bad shape now,” Ollig said.
Council members asked about opinions from the public, and Tienter said that at a previous meeting with hangar owners, opinions were split in half.
“There was a lot of discussion for and against,” Stotko said. “The ones who were most passionate were the ones who wanted to leave it sod.”
The airport runway is more than 50 years old. Discussion about the runway’s future began 10 years ago, with five different proposals. Since then, the project has been narrowed down to the current two options.
More discussion will take place at future council meetings.
“This is certainly not your last chance to talk about it,” Tienter said.