My Turn: Troubling aspects of building a heliport

Posted: Wednesday, August 21, 2002

For the current fiscal year, the Juneau Assembly has appropriated $500,000 to conduct a feasibility study for the construction of a new heliport in the Thane area. The second Baker study, acting on instructions from the city, has identified two prime sites for a new heliport, viz. one at the end of Montana Creek Road, and one at Dupont, 1 1/2 miles beyond the end of Thane Road. But in its wisdom, the Assembly has focused only on Thane Road, and although a possible site at Sheep Creek was not at the top of the list, the Assembly has directed that this site also be subject of the feasibility study.

The Dupont site would require either that Thane Road be extended another 1 1/2 miles or so unless it could be built so that all passengers, employees and everything else could be transported by boat. If the road is extended, it has been estimated that the cost would be approximately $2 million. As for the cost of acquiring the property, a memorandum from the Lands and Resources Office in June advised that the owner of the Dupont site is only willing to sell the entire 100 acres owned by them even though fewer than 20 acres are needed for a heliport. The owners asked $1.9 million when the property was on the market several years ago. As for cost of construction, that is one object of the feasibility study, but let's assume a low-end cost of $6.1 million. This means the total cost would be at least $10 million of the public's money.

Sounds like a lot just to avoid inconveniencing the operators. But rather than take a direct approach, such as regulating the hours of operation or the number of flights, our Assembly would prefer to build a heliport which would essentially be a gift to perhaps just one operator.

Apart from the cost, a troubling underlying issue is whether there is even a public purpose involved here. In 1999, when Era Aviation proposed to lease the Little Rock Dump from the city, they acknowledged that there was no public purpose, simply their private interest and desire to expand their operations. Since Era is the only operator with flights to the south end of the ice cap, it may be the sole beneficiary of the city's largesse.

The problem is that the Assembly has proceeded so far down the path of intermingling public policy with private interest, they no longer recognize the difference.

A neighbor of mine who was born and raised in Juneau recently told me that he sometimes visits with a group of Juneau "old timers." He said that in the past these "old timers" always voted to keep the capital in Juneau, but in his recent visits, they said that this time they may vote the other way simply because they no longer believe the Assembly is responsive to their interests.

I know how they feel.

Preston is a resident of Thane Road and has been actively involved in the issue of noise from flightseeing.

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