Legislators: Proposed regional airports would attract businesses

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Legislators: Proposed regional airports would attract businesses

A proposal by two local legislators to build two major airport hubs in Jeffersonville, just east of Xenia, and near Ravenna in northeast Ohio, was met with skepticism by the head of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce and an airport expert on Wednesday after the idea was announced.

State Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, said the two proposed airports would attract the kind of large airline hubs that places like Dallas-Fort Worth, Boston and Atlanta now have. He said a railroad system would allow people to catch a train from the state’s seven major cities to the airports

Each airport would be within one hour of people in the regions they would serve, with a potential customer base of at least 4 million people, he said.

Butler and bill co-sponsor, Rep. Paul Zeltwanger, R-Mason, believe the hubs would be an economic engine that would bring more corporate headquarters to Ohio, which currently has no major airline hubs.

“Our current situation makes us uncompetitive and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Butler said.

Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, Cleveland, Canton and Youngstown would help run the new airports and share in revenue, Butler said.

He put the whole cost at $10 billion to $15 billion for both airports and phase one of the railroad system. Funding would be through airport bonds and federal funds and Butler doesn’t think it would be difficult to get federal approval. He believes existing airports could survive and even thrive.

Probably not, said Phil Parker, executive director of the Dayton chamber, and Janet Bednarek, professor of history at the University of Dayton and an expert on aviation and airports.

“The FAA has told us they’re not building new airports, and that they’re struggling with resources to repair and refurbish and expand existing facilities,” Parker said. “Where’s this money going to come from? The money is hard to get these days.”

Parker and Bednarek also said the existing international airports in Dayton, Columbus and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport just over the border could not survive if a new one opened in Jeffersonville. In fact, said Bednarek, the airlines would probably demand closure before agreeing to site hubs at a new airport.

“There’s a reason” the Denver International Airport is the only major airport built since the 1970s, she said. Bednarek said Denver had to close an existing airport when it built the new one at a cost of about $5 billion in the 1990s. In today’s dollars she said she wouldn’t be surprised if each of the airports Butler proposes cost far more than the $10 billion to $15 billion he estimates for both of them.

Bednarek also said siting an airport is not easy, which approval needed from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and neighbors.

“People don’t want airports in their backyards,” Bednarek said. “And they will fight tooth and nail.”

Butler said he expected opposition to the idea. His bill would set up a council, made up of appointees picked by the governor and legislature, that would establish two airport authorities and begin the planning process for the airports. Construction would be 10 or 15 years from now.

Each airport would only be built if one of the country’s major airlines commits to put a hub there, said Butler.

“This just gets us to the point where we can make that proposal to the airlines,” Butler said in response to criticism from Parker and Bednarek. “That’s what we are trying to do is to go through the initial steps. Just saying. ‘It can’t be done, it will never work,’ that’s what we hear every time with things that are a big change.”

One airport would be located at the intersection of Interstate 71 and U.S. 35 near Jeffersonville in rural Fayette County and the other off Interstate 80 north of Ravenna in Portage County. The rail system would be built in phases, with stations located at the exits of major cities in the first phase and rail stubs from various parts of cities built later.

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