Kenyon Rainer, with Star Road Dance Company from Taos, walks across the apron at Taos Airport on Friday. He and his family sang and danced at a grand opening for the new 1.5 mile Crosswinds runway at the airport. (Eddie Moore/ Journal)
After decades of discussion, controversy and litigation, Taos officials threw a party Friday to celebrate a new, longer runway and expansion at the municipal airport north of town.
Town leaders hailed the $26 million project as a boon for tourism and economic development, and much more.
“This isn’t just an airport runway,” Mayor Dan Barrone said. The project “is about new economic opportunities and partnerships that will increase accessibility between Taos and the world, between Taos and new tourism opportunities.”
Work on the 1½-mile runway, which is perpendicular to the single pre-existing landing strip, started in 2015. Discussion of the project began about 25 years ago.
The new runway, about 3,000 feet longer than the old one, is intended to increase the number of planes that can land and improve safety at an airport known for windy conditions at high altitude on the Taos mesa.
Federal Aviation Administration administrator Michael Huerta said at Friday’s event that the second runway would help pilots during blustery conditions by providing a second option depending on which way the wind is blowing. The longer runway also makes it easier for all aircraft to land in varying weather conditions, he said. The federal government provided most of the funding for the expansion.
“For me, this is one of the most satisfying projects we’ve completed during my tenure with the agency,” Huerta said. “Because an airport is, in a sense, a treasure. It’s a lifeblood of a community, an asset that leverages so many different things.”
In addition to private planes, Barrone said users will include aircraft for fighting wildfires, search-and-rescue teams and transporting patients. “Because of this project, lives will be saved,” the mayor said.
Opponents maintain that more airplanes mean more pollution and lower property values and that the airport will benefit only the wealthy with private planes, including part-time residents whose increasing numbers erode local culture. About two years ago, a state court judge rejected a challenge to the airport plans and how they was approved by Taos County. But opponents have gone to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which has agreed to hear the case.
Barrone said the new runway represents fulfillment of a “sacred pledge” to keep air traffic away from Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Drummers and dancers from Taos Pueblo were present for Friday’s celebration, but pueblo officials did not attend. They had long opposed airport expansion but supported the project following an agreement that planes can’t fly lower than 5,000 feet over pueblo land.
The airport sees an average of 400 or 500 flights per month. Airport manager John Thompson said the FAA estimates the number of flights will increase 5 percent annually for the next five years.
Thompson said within the next three years, the airport would like to start using the new runway for small, commercial flights.
Barrone said local officials would like to see flights connecting to Santa Fe and Denver, to help attract national and international travelers.
Mike Garcia, the project engineer, said he hopes the town will help those still apprehensive about the runway see its benefits for the entire community. “Now that it’s done, I hope it helps bring the community together … I hope the community starts to accept it,” Garcia said.
By: Megan Bennett (Albuquerque Journal)
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