After years of plans and negotiations, Palo Alto's takeover of its namesake airport is finally ready for liftoff.
The City Council will consider on Monday night a series of resolutions that would facilitate the transfer of Palo Alto Airport from Santa Clara County, which has operated the small Baylands airport since 1967 under a 50-year agreement. The two sides have been discussing an early termination of that lease since 2007, with county officials saying that the facility is losing money and city leaders arguing that it hasn't been properly maintained and is in desperate need of fresh investment.
The handoff already achieved one milestone this week, when the county Board of Supervisors swiftly, unanimously and with almost no discussion approved on Tuesday the transfer agreement for Palo Alto Airport. The council is set to vote on the agreement Monday, as well as consider other technical matters relating to airport fees and regulations. A new report from the Public Works Department notes that the package of documents that the council will be reviewing "represents the result of complex and detailed negotiations with federal, state and local agencies spanning the past seven years."
Though the journey has been complicated and beset with unforeseen obstacles, Palo Alto officials are now facing a real sense of urgency in the takeover bid. The county's ability to invest in the airport has been hampered by the Federal Aviation Administration's finding in 2012 that the county violated its grant agreement when it rejected a skydiving application for South County Airport in San Martin. This made Santa Clara County ineligible for FAA grants for any of its airports, including Palo Alto Airport.
With that in mind, Palo Alto is racing to take over the facility by mid-August so that it can serve as the sponsor in applying for a federal grant that is needed to repair the airport's dilapidated runway. If the deadline is missed, the city could lose a portion of the $610,000 in funding in the current federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, according to staff. That means the runway repairs would be delayed by at least one year, according to Public Works.
Even with the recent progress, Palo Alto officials still have plenty of decisions to make when it comes to the busy airport on Embarcadero Road. The county has entered into numerous leases with the FAA and has various agreements in place with fixed-base operators, who provide services such as hangar rental space, fuel and repairs. Their leases will expire in 2017. It will be up to the city's nascent airport division to figure out whether to take over or terminate these agreements. The city will also have to address the runway, consider redevelopment of fixed-base-operator facilities and prepare an Airport Master Plan to address the airport's long-term needs, according to the Public Works report.
Nevertheless, the transfer agreement that the council is set to consider is an important achievement for an effort that has been hovering in the background for years and that is now set to take a more central role in the civic conversation. As soon as the transfer is completed, Palo Alto plans to launch a "visioning" process in which Palo Alto residents and airport users will be asked to reflect on their visions for the facility.
City Manager James Keene said last month that officials expect more demand for the facility and higher expectations from the community once the transfer is complete. This means the already busy airport that hosts about 180,000 takeoffs and landings annually is expected to get only busier once the city takes charge.
Andrew Swanson, Palo Alto's airport manager, acknowledged the transfer of a municipal airport is a process that doesn't happen very often. In the coming months, he will be working with the community on developing and then delivering on the expectations of all the stakeholders.
"It's a really exciting time for the airport and for the city to have the opportunity to bring Palo Alto Airport back to Palo Alto," Swanson told the Weekly.
He noted that some residents aren't even aware that Palo Alto has an airport, which makes the outreach process a particularly promising opportunity to highlight the facility's services. He pointed to air services such as Stanford Life Flight and Angel Flight as some operators that use the airport.
"There are many roles that the airport plays in the community," Swanson said.
While the city expects the airport to ultimately become an economic asset, for the next few years it will rely on public subsidies to stay aloft. The budget for fiscal year 2015 allocates a $560,000 loan to the newly created Airport Fund, a $235,000 increase from the prior year. The city also plans to hire a new management analyst for the airport (with a salary of $155,000) and spend about $300,000 on maintenance work, inspections and support for the airport's control towers.
The facility is expected to rely on General Fund loans at least until 2018, according to staff projections. After that, the city hopes that the airport will start to turn a profit. The revenues would then be reinvested in the facility, as per federal regulations.