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Federal BRAC delay gives 'breathing room' over WVANG base

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Recent action in Congress that effectively postpones military base closure studies until the 2015 fiscal year gives West Virginia officials time to have a new bridge and secure access road to the 130th Airlift Wing on the ground before the next round of Base Realignment and Closure Commission deliberations begins.

That's the assessment Yeager Airport board member and former state National Guard leader Allen B. Tackett gave to fellow airport board members during a meeting on Wednesday.

"It looks like we have a little more breathing room for saving the base," Tackett said. "I think we have the time, and the will, to get the bridge and the road built by 2015."

Lack of a military-controlled access route to the Charleston Air National Guard base is the sole deficiency yet to be corrected following a round of BRAC hearings in 2005, from which the 130th Airlift Wing's base at Yeager Airport narrowly escaped closure.

Coonskin Drive, a public road, currently takes traffic directly past the headquarters building of the Air Guard base as well as the nearby West Virginia National Guard headquarters complex, before entering Coonskin Park. National Guard officials are seeking state and county assistance in developing a new route to the base that crosses the Elk River and travels through Coonskin Park before reaching a gated checkpoint at the entrance to military property.

If the new road is built, Coonskin Drive would dead-end at the start of Air National Guard land on the other side of the base.

The bridge and access road are expected to cost $7 million to $9 million, which Tackett said is a relatively small price to pay to save a base that pumps $89 million annually into the state's economy and provides 370 full-time and 1,100 part-time jobs.

In other developments during Wednesday's meeting, the airport board voted to apply for a $750,000 grant from the federal Small Community Air Service Development Grant Program to attract new nonstop air service to Florida. The Charleston airport used a similar grant in 2003 to successfully bring nonstop air service to Houston via Continental Airlines. The route continues to operate at a profit for United Airlines, which bought Continental in 2010.

From 2009 until June of last year, AirTran Airways provided nonstop air service linking Charleston to Orlando. According to Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson, the route was popular with passengers and profitable for AirTran. But after Southwest Airlines purchased AirTran in 2012, the new carrier opted to drop Yeager and several other smaller airports from its route system.

About half the grant money would be used to provide a minimum revenue guarantee for a new Florida carrier during the route's first year of operation, with the rest of the funding to be spent on marketing the route.

After AirTran, a low-cost carrier, suspended service here, "fares went up to travelers going to Florida, and our Florida passenger numbers plummeted," Atkinson said.

"If we can get a nonstop route to one Florida city, I think our passenger numbers will increase by at least 30,000 a year," Atkinson said. "If we get service to two or more cities, it could be a gain of 75,000 or 80,000."

Yeager's July passenger numbers got a boost from more than 1,000 Boy Scouts and scout leaders who landed at the Charleston Airport to take part in the National Scout Jamboree in Fayette County. On Wednesday, hundreds of scouts passed through Yeager's passenger terminal to catch commercial flights home, while hundreds more boarded a pair of Boeing 737 charter jets at Executive Air, Yeager's general aviation terminal.

Also on Wednesday, Yeager's governing board accepted, pending Federal Aviation Administration approval, a low bid of $13.2 million from Central Contracting of St. Albans to perform the earth moving and erosion control work needed to remove a knoll in the NorthGate office park complex. The knoll obstructs the climb-out and landing approach to the downtown Charleston end of Yeager's main runway.

To shear off the knoll and create sediment control ponds, about 1.3 million cubic yards of earth will be moved to complete the project. Funds to pay for the project come from the FAA's Airport Improvement Program.

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


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