[caption id="attachment_47291" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Alaska Air currently serves Santa Rosa with Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft."][/caption]

SANTA ROSA -- The expansion and safety upgrades of  Sonoma County's airport approved this week by the Board of Supervisors have the potential to vault the county's $1.2 billion tourism industry even further by expanding into new markets, while producing nearly 900 jobs during construction, according to proponents and much of the business community.

"We're elated," said Kenneth Fischang, president and chief executive officer of the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. "The expansion will allow us to open up new service to the Midwest and the East Coast, and that is really important."

On Tuesday, the board unanimously approved the $84 million upgrade to Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport that will meet federal requirements for safety, add a new passenger terminal, provide longer runways and allow mid-sized commercial jets to land at the airport. Supervisors voted to certify the project environmental impact report as well as amendments to the airport master plan and the county general plan.

The matter will come back to the board Jan. 24 to consider adding a health and noise impact assessment. The cost of the study will be determined at that time.

Approximately 95 percent of the improvements would be financed by federal aviation grants, according to Jon Stout, manager of the airport and a chief proponent of the project that has been in the making since 1999. The safety upgrades would cost about $42 million, while the remainder of the price tag would go toward improvements to the control tower, the new passenger terminal and cargo space. Timing of the latter would depend on attracting more airlines and ridership numbers.

Mr. Stout said the Federal Aviation Administration could sign off on the plans by April. The first phase of construction could begin in August and be completed by August of 2013, ahead of the 2015 Congressional deadline to have the safety upgrades completed.

"First and foremost, it solves the safety issues. We're not an unsafe airport," Mr Stout said, adding that scores of small and major airports are facing similar runway safety issues, including Oakland and San Francisco. "Finally, of course, it will give us a runway long enough for regional aircraft, and open us up to some markets that (turbo propeller planes) cannot serve."

Sonoma County's general plan allows for up to 21 commercial flights per day by the year 2030, but that measure is unattainable with the current runway and needed repairs.

The project calls for extending the main runway by 885 feet to 6,000 feet and a second runway by 200 feet to 5,002 feet. That would in turn allow for larger and more frequent commercial aircraft to land and depart from the county, which proponents say could ease the reliance on San Francisco and Oakland airports while boosting the local economy. 

Business representatives widely hailed the project as an economic boost that could draw visitors from a wider swath of the country.

"One of the barriers we've had in getting people here is they have to fly into San Francisco or Oakland and drive up," Mr. Fischang said. "By being able to fly right into Santa Rosa, it really cuts out a lot of travel time. The other thing that we are finding is that most people look at four-to-six hours as a maximum in traveling." The extra hour and half to two hours driving to Sonoma County can really impact a traveler's decision to visit the area, Mr. Fischang, who lives in Windsor, said. 

"It's really going to help us grow tourism in Sonoma County. If we're able to increase the circle of folks by expanding our airport by having better connections, that is only going to help expand the base of visitors," he said.

Jeff Weber, a spokesman for Agilent Technologies in Santa Rosa, said Agilent employees in the last year have taken over 1,000 flights to Denver and other Colorado cities, where the company operates similar facilities.  Currently, those employees must fly out of San Francisco or Oakland, and the expansion of Sonoma County's airport could reduce their commute time from nearly two hours to 10 minutes while removing cars from Highway 101, he said.

With the larger runways, airport officials said more carriers would be inclined to stop in Santa Rosa, though none have yet committed. Possible new destinations include Denver, for which the county has received a $650,000 grant to support services to that hub, San Diego, a third flight to Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and others, according to airport staff.

The airport's only carrier is Alaska Air, which operates five flights a day to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Portland and Seattle from Santa Rosa. In 2011, passenger volume at the airport reached an all-time high and was up by 9.8 percent from the previous year.

Concerns have been raised regarding the plan, however, with some critics saying the expansion would negatively impact air and water quality while increasing noise pollution.  A contingent of Windsors residents opposed to the project told the board that the town of about 26,000 would bare the brunt of any negative impacts of the project, particularity an increase in noise. Other Windsor residents, including Mayor Debra Fudge, were supportive of the safety upgrades but expressed a need for carefully mitigating the impact of noise and construction. 

Airport staff and the board acknowledged there would be significant impact, but said the project does its best to mitigate such impacts while saying the overall economic benefit to the county outweighed the negative aspects. Particularity, numerous residents asked why the airport is extending the runway to the North, near residential areas instead of the West or South. Airport staff said that was not an option because of the impacts it would have on endangered species' habitats, and that the northern expansion was the best possible alternative.

Environmental mitigation efforts totaling $9 million include the allocation of $1 million toward habitat improvements at nearby Mark West and Windsor Creeks and to Riverfront Regional Park.

"There's no doubt that the Sonoma County Airport will have a positive economic impact," said Supervisor Mike McGuire, whose district includes Windsor. But, echoing much of his constituency, he said there needs to be "checks and balances" in the plan. "I'm very excited about this project, but I think we must also balance the interest  of Windsor  and the area."

Airport staff and the county listed numerous economic benefits from the project. Every new flight could generate approximately $23 million in economic impact and could create 70 jobs, they said. And concerns about greenhouse gases were countered with the possibility of reducing 120 miles traveled per North Coast resident who uses Sonoma County's airport instead of San Francisco or Oakland.

Alaska Air's five current daily flights generate an economic impact of $112 million and have created 414 jobs in the county, according to airport staff. The county anticipates a total of 11 or 12 commercial daily flights by 2015, which would carry an economic impact of $282 million while creating nearly 900 jobs.

The Planning Commission had recommended the county seek a voluntary curfew on commercial flights to limit late-night and early morning noise, which the board agreed to do while also saying it would continue talks with the Federal Aviation Authority about adjusting the flight path over residences and schools in Windsor.