Though a runway extension wasn’t one of the 37 short- and medium-term improvements brainstormed by city staff, concerned citizens and the Transportation Advisory Commission that were presented to the City Council this week, local aviation and business people repeatedly cited expansion as a linchpin for economic growth.
“Tracy has the potential to have an airport that provides an economic engine here,” said Dave Anderson, vice president of the Tracy Airport Association.
That goal squares with the Boyd Report, a report done for the city that says the city’s main aim regarding its municipal airport should be to increase income and ensure its sustainability.
Anderson and Richard Ortenheim, director of Skyview Aviation, which has a home at the Tracy airport, said that lengthening the runway would open the airport to more types of traffic, and even the possibility of landing and housing corporate jets, many of which can’t fly into Tracy Municipal because the runways aren’t long enough to satisfy Federal Aviation Administration requirements.
If the main runway were 600 feet longer than its 4,000-foot span, Ortenheim said, the percentage of corporate jets the airport could host would jump from about 30 percent to about 70 percent.
“From a regional standpoint, you’re going to have to lengthen the runways there,” agreed Dana Parry, one of four developers working to turn Cordes Ranch into a state-of-the-art business park, in answer to a question later in the evening by Councilman Steve Abercrombie. “Long-term, there are very few opportunities in the Bay Area to house corporate jets.”
Tracy could miss out on filling that economic niche if it doesn’t act quickly, said Anderson, who added that the Byron airport could usurp Tracy’s position as a popular Central Valley flypad.
“There’s a very small window of opportunity to grasp that,” Anderson said.
Mayor Brent Ives agreed that economic development is at the heart of any conversation regarding the airport. He said a study of the airport’s present and possible economic impact might provide more impetus to act.
“If there’s ever going to be a driver, that’s probably going to be the one to take it to action,” Ives said.
Parks and Recreation Director Rod Buchanan confirmed that the city has never conducted a measure of the airport’s economic influence, but said Thursday that such research would give decision-makers more information about how to best shape the airport.
“It would allow the evaluation and analysis of what the optimum airport structure would be in order to support optimal economic development,” Buchanan said.
Aside from the possibility of expansion, Anderson and others said the best thing the city can do to support the airport is to immediately resurface the existing runways.
“The most important that they could help with, of the proposals on the tables, would be repairing the surface of the runway,” said the president of the TAA, John Favors, in an interview this week. “This would give (the airport) economic viability.”
The surface, laid down in 2007, is in poor repair, according to a January California Department of Transportation inspection. Favors and other pilots say the bad seal damages planes and keeps away potential business.
“(If it’s repaired) we can get aircraft in there that currently are reluctant to come in, because of the runway,” Favors continued, “and that will bring in fuel for the city.”
Investigating what it would take to patch or permanently repair the runway was one of the many priorities presented to the council. Buchanan also told the council finding out if the 2007 seal was improperly laid will be part of that investigation.
He added that the next step is to map out time lines for the various improvements reviewed by the council, including the runway surface, economic report and determining the actual length of the runways, something Buchanan said has been fairly controversial.
Some pilots have suggested the city has purposefully shortened the runways, possibly in an attempt to make it easier to use surrounding land for development.
“The city’s artificially shortening the length of the runway,” said Jose Suez, who keeps a plane at Tracy Municipal Airport.
Buchanan, however, insisted the city is doing everything it can to maximize the runway pavement that can be used while staying within safety requirements.
“We’re not intending on shortening it for any reason,” he said. “(We want to) maximize available pavement length. The plan doesn’t have anything to do with shortening the runway.”
The city’s official tally is uncertain enough that measuring the main runway was part of two separate short-term goals presented Tuesday. (Another plans to measure the secondary airstrip.)
While those and many other improvements were discussed, significant expansion to the main runway — there are two at the airport — in its present configuration looks all but impossible.
The airport is hemmed on the southwest by the Delta-Mendota Canal, at the east by Tracy Boulevard, and to the north by Linne Road and industrial development.
One key to unlock that set of geographic handcuffs could be moving the airport, an option the city plans to look into.
But Favors said that would negate a feature that sets Tracy Municipal Airport apart from other valley airports. Even during winter fogs, Favors said, Tracy is usually open, because of the mountains to the west.
“The location of this airport was intentional. When the rest of the valley is fogged in … Tracy has the ability to bring aircraft in,” he said. “We move from this location, we lose something that provides us a tremendous advantage.”
Instead, Favors suggested a different tack: Rotate the main runway 20 degrees to the west.
“Shifting the runway gives the space to increase the length to approximately 4,600 feet,” Favors said, and also eliminates center-crossovers on the tarmac, which he said would greatly increase airport safety.
Aside from the work and possible disruption to flight that would involve, there’s a big hurdle to Favors’ concept: money.
Though Buchanan called it “a great idea,” he said finding a way to pay for such an intensive project could be a lengthy process.
“That idea, as well as others, has to go through the vetting process with the FAA to see if it even qualifies for funding,” Buchanan said.
At least one member of the transportation commission, though, said ideas about shifting the runway or moving the airport were too grand for the moment.
“I think right now that’s almost too visionary. That’s a good 10- to 20-year-out kind of look,” said Joseph Orcutt, adding that the short- and medium-term goals presented by the council are more immediately attainable.
But Councilman Robert Rickman thought now is a perfect time to think big.
“We need to look beyond the immediate,” Rickman said.