Palo Alto's effort to take control of its airport began to lift off the ground Monday night after the City Council started a new fund to pay for airport operations.
The Palo Alto Airport has been operated by Santa Clara County since 1967 under a 50-year lease, which will expire in 2017. The council agreed Monday night that the city should try to take control of the airport even before the lease expires.
County officials decided in 2006 to not renew the airport lease and have kept airport maintenance at a minimal level since.
The council's decision was bolstered by a recent report from the consulting firm Ralph Wiedemann & Associates, which concluded that the small but busy airport could bring in a hefty long-term profit. This profit, however, would have to be reinvested back into the facility because of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, Wiedemann told the council Monday.
FAA regulations also make it all but impossible for the city to convert airport land to other uses, he said.
"The grants that we take from the FAA come with strings and the strings basically say it has to be an airport for at least 20 years," Wiedemann said. "Even then, they still have to grant you permission to close it and they may not."
Councilman Larry Klein championed an early takeover of the airport, noting that the facility is slated to revert to city control by 2017 even if the council does nothing.
"The question on the airport is not whether, but when," Klein said. He is a member of the council's Finance Committee and served on the 2005 Palo Alto Airport Working Group.
Klein also said that given the county's lack of investment in the airport the city has "every incentive to get this done earlier rather than later."
"If we delay things all we're doing is letting things deteriorate," he said.
Several members of the airport community lauded the council's decision and said they look forward to seeing renewed investment in the airport.
Ralph Britton, president of the Palo Alto Airport Association, said the county has already stopped doing maintenance work on the airport's runways. He called for the city to make the airport "the kind of facility that Palo Alto can be proud of."
The council voted unanimously to contribute $300,000 into the new Airport Enterprise Fund, to pay for legal fees and consultants associated with the transition. The council also considered setting up a new advisory commission to assist the city with airport operations, but ultimately decided that such a move would be premature.
The council voted 5-4 to reject a delay in discussing whether to form a new commission, with council members Greg Scharff, Nancy Shepherd, Klein and Sid Espinosa dissenting.
The council did defer deciding whether the city should operate the airport on its own or hire a third party. Staff will examine both options in the coming months and make a recommendation by the middle of next year.
The Wiedemann report estimated that the city's profit from the airport could be as large as $16.2 million by 2037 if it were to take over airport operations in 2012.
Staff plans to hire an airport expert in the next two months and begin negotiations with the county by March 2011.