[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.