Road to airport paved with problems
The road to hell might be paved with good intentions, but the road leading to and from the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport is paved with cracks … about 143 of them, according to Mono County Supervisor Tim Hansen, who recently took time out of his day to count them.
All that may change soon, however, following a lively discussion during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting regarding the current status, condition and costs of either repair or rehabilitation of Hot Creek Hatchery and Airport roads, which provide access to the airport. Issues of not only how much to fix up the roads, but also who’s going to pay for it, have zoomed into the County limelight of late, especially with pressure coming from tourist sectors of the economy, preparing for more commercial air service flights to be added this winter.
Federal Aviation Administration funding for the County isn’t an option, since the road isn’t dedicated entirely for airport access. Mining and other non-airport related traffic also use the road for access to a nearby pit. Who actually owns the road itself is another question. Mono County has historically been assumed to be the rights holder, but Airport Director Bill Manning, who has 19 years of experience with the airport, reportedly told Supervisor Larry Johnston he’s not aware of any existing agreements, and has no documentation as to ownership of the road. County records indicate an easement granted by the Forest Service, but the road dates back at least 30 years; what’s missing is any formal paper trail.
Hansen, whose background includes roadwork experience, said some of the 143 cracks would need to be filled twice to even them out. He suggested the road’s quality rating — “good” as per Public Works — is a relative notion. “This has been under the radar and overlooked previously, and now it’s all-important,” Hansen said. “Maybe people didn’t think it was that bad until recently.” He added his theory that it could be worth giving the road to the Town of Mammoth Lakes, which might be in a better position to get FAA funds.
“I [also] question the current rating; it’s far from ‘good,’” Johnston stated. “The perception is that it’s a terrible road.” Johnston went on to add that there’s a push being made by the Local Transportation Commission and Mammoth Town Council to see road conditions improved.
“It’s a County road and we’re responsible for its upkeep,” he said. “With 7 flights a day, it should be in better condition. The airport is a huge economic engine and it’s the least we can do to fix up the road.” He went on to suggest that several recent road improvement projects in various parts of the County have not been as important to economics as this one.
Board Chair Hap Hazard disagreed. “This isn’t a critical issue that’s sprung up out of nowhere. It’s been that way for 30 years,” Hazard assessed. “It’s a seismically active area. Unless you build a suspension bridge, [the road] is going to crack, wear and it’s going to fail.”
The road wasn’t an issue until the Town opted to redirect funds for a planned second access road to the airport in favor of completing a bike path. Visitors, he added, are not coming here to inspect potholes.
Hazard also dispelled misconceptions about the so-called Highway Users Tax Act (HUTA) “windfall,” which could return anywhere between $650,000 to more than $1 million in cash to Mono County’s Road Fund. “It’s not a windfall,” Hazard stated definitively. “That HUTA money has been fought for over several years, since it was potentially going away. Last year, because of a great deal of work and lobbying [in Sacramento], Mono was exempted [from HUTA cash grabs and deferrals], so we could have employees and equipment for snow removal. It’s not a gift, it’s the result of long hard work to keep our roads department operating.”
Hazard clarified his point, saying he didn’t think the road shouldn’t be fixed up, but not at the cost of other roads that have been delayed more than a decade as a result of shortfalls and cash grabs.
Mammoth, he proposed, could take some its money that would be freed up as a result of the $1 million in FAA funds from hitting 10,000 enplanements that has to be used specifically on airport improvements. “There is a number of ways to help pay for refurbishing; it doesn’t have to come out of the general fund,” Hazard said. “What about a surcharge on every landing to help pay for maintenance, or a per passenger ticket surcharge, a fuel surcharge?”
Bauer also wasn’t convinced of the need to move it to the top of the priority list. “I’ve been waiting 5-8 years for some June Lake roads, but these things take time. It has to be predictable and thought out,” she said. Note: Bauer has deferred some of her projects in favor of more pressing ones, such as the White Mountains Estates repaving. “The process has got to be respected. I’m not in favor of jumping it to the front of the line for any reason.” A 30-year old road in Mono County, she opined, isn’t an oddity.
“The road is still 30 years old,” Johnston countered. “We threw money to get Tioga Pass opened. Why? It’s a huge economic driver.” So, he posited, is the airport. “How much is the town (which pays 80% of property taxes) getting back from the County? It’s not in queue, but it should be and we should get it there as soon as we can. It’s something small the County can do.”
Bauer wasn’t having any of it. “It’s not ‘small’ if it bumps my June Lake roads that I have been waiting for,” she retorted. Bauer also pointed out that the Tioga Pass expenditures have been small amounts, asked for specifically as relates to each winter’s conditions. About $120,000 has been spent on Tioga Pass in roughly 10 years time; some years, however, have incurred no expenditures.
Supervisor Byng Hunt agreed with Johnston that perception by visitors is important, but supported finding other ways to pay for the resurfacing, rather than pull the funds directly out of County coffers.
In the end, however, the money did come out of the County’s Road Department budget, but only a modest amount. Of the three options Public Works Director Jeff Walters presented, two were fairly comprehensive, but ranged in price from $600,000 to about $730,000. Both were deemed too pricey. The cheapest of the three came in at about $37,000, and covers crack sealing that can be done with existing manpower and materials, plus a fog sealant and striping.
While not a perfect long-term solution, even Johnston agreed it was at least worth the short-term compromise, which would buy the County about 5-7 years of useable life, enough time for staff to explore other funding sources and options.