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Yeager's board joins in Coonskinn bridge bid

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Yeager Airport's governing board voted Wednesday to explore funding options, including partnering with state, county and city officials for a possible bond issue, to pay for construction of a bridge giving more secure access to the National Guard 130th Airlift Wing's base.

Also Wednesday, Yeager board members learned that an expected loss of an overnight air traffic controller shift, because of the federal budget sequester, now appears unlikely to occur.

During Base Realignment and Closure Commission hearings in 2005, when the Air National Guard operation was threatened with closure, the use of an uncontrolled public road -- Coonskin Drive -- as the access route to the base was cited as a security deficiency.

"That security issue is the only issue raised in that BRAC report that hasn't since been mitigated," said former state National Guard head Allen Tackett, now a member of Yeager Airport's board of directors.

With the Department of Defense now asking Congress for another round of BRAC hearings, Tackett and current state military leaders worry that the 130th will be targeted for closure once more.

It is unknown now whether the Charleston Air Guard base will again be under BRAC review. "But when I read that the Department of Defense thinks we have too many C-130s (the aircraft flown by the Charleston Air Guard unit) and I know that they are trying to cut costs to meet their budget, I know we've got to be ready" for that possibility, Tackett said.

Last year, funding for the $9 million bridge was chopped from the federal Defense budget. Plans called for the bridge to Cross the Elk River near the Mink Shoals exit of Interstate 79, while a new access road leading from the span would enter and pass through Coonskin Park. The publicly traveled portion of the road would end at a security checkpoint at the boundary of park property and National Guard land.

"The bridge could be a win-win for both the park and the base," said Tackett, since Coonskin Park would get better, more direct access, and the 130th would have its security issue addressed.

Tackett said the state Armory Board, among other entities, has the authority to authorize bond issues to pay for such construction projects.

The airport board voted unanimously to authorize Tackett and airport director Rick Atkinson to work with city, county and state officials to come up with a plan to pay for the bridge.

"The cost of building a new bridge is just a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of losing the Air Guard base," said Ed Hill, Yeager's board president.

The 130th employs about 1,000 people and pumps about $89 million annually into the state's economy. The Air Guard unit also provides fire and rescue service for the entire airport, at no cost to Yeager.

If Congress approves another round of BRAC hearings, they would likely begin during the 2014 fiscal year.

"We need to have the bridge under construction, or at least ready to be built, by then," said Tackett. "I don't know of many places that have survived BRAC twice."

Among other developments during Wednesday's meeting, Atkinson told Yeager's governing board that the previously expected loss of an overnight air traffic controller shift, due to the federal budget sequester, is not likely to occur.

Air traffic controllers at Yeager and other control towers are now required to take one day off without pay every two weeks, which amounts to a 10 percent pay reduction. But a contract clause for federal ATC employees, like those staffing Yeager's tower, requires 120 days notice before implementing a change such as eliminating a work shift.

The 120-day notice requirement, along with the fact that Yeager's controllers also serve a military base -- the 130th Airlift Wing -- and serve a section of airspace considered critical, mean that the Charleston airport should retain its around-the-clock air control service.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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