Airport plans grounded

The plans to upgrade the Merimbula airport runway to allow bigger aircraft to land have hit a new and formidable wall of resistance.

The recently elected Bega Valley Shire Council has exerted its influence and scrapped the plans to strengthen and upgrade the runway at a cost of about for $6.12 million in favour of a much scaled down repair job at an estimated value of $150,000.      

The poor condition of the runway demands immediate attention and the urgency of the matter was not lost on the new council. The works will be done before April 2013 or thereabouts. 

It is expected the new operator of the Sydney Merimbula route will be announced soon. When that comes to pass council staff will report back to council on a business plan and master plan for the airport, plus the outcome of the previous tender negotiations which were left in the hands of the general manager, Peter Tegart, by the former council.

Mr Tegart had indicated in a previous report to that council that it may need to borrow up to a further $2 million over and above the $3.5 million to support his negotiations.

His report stated that as a result of a state government offer to subsidise the $3.5 million loan, by making it interest free would allow the council to recommit what it would have paid in interest to borrow, and repay a further $2 million.

The discarding of the upgrade plans evolved as a result of two rescission motions lodged by councillor Michael Britten, and countersigned by councillors Sharon Tapscott and Kristy McBain.

At the new council’s first ordinary meeting on Tuesday, October 9 Cr Britten successfully moved the rescission motions but not without some strong objection voiced by Cr Tony Allen.

Cr Britten said it was up to the new council to revisit the airport strategy and revisit the resurfacing tender. 

He said there were issues regarding the tenders for the runway upgrade that concerned him.

He said that council had authorised tenders in November 2011 and yet nothing happened until tenders were called on the July 17 this year. 

“The single operator route which we were trying to have deregulated was advertised on July 24 2012, the date we considered amendments to the airport strategy, and closed on the 7 August 2012, two days prior to our August 9 meeting, and yet we, as councillors, were not advised at any time that it was to remain a single operator route and that tenders for route carriers had been called and closed.”

He said he had lodged a formal complaint with the previous mayor, Cr Tony Allen, regarding the process. 

Cr Britten said that the whole idea of the original draft strategy was to increase competition. 

“We (the council) had been led to believe deregulation would do that, whereas in fact the reality is we won’t get competition regardless of deregulation until passenger numbers are well over 100,000 per annum on the Sydney Merimbula route. Therefore with the current 34,000 passengers per annum we will have a single operator and dependant on who that operator is we will be using planes of less than 20,000 kilo being the Saab (34 seater) or Q300 (50 seater) for a long time to come.

“This means you do not have to refurbish the runway to the standard of Option 4 referred to in the council resolution of November 2011 which was to make the runway capable of receiving eight Q400 planes per day (74 seaters) which equates to over 400,000 passengers per year.”

Cr Britten said he was also concerned about the way in which the tenders were rushed over a period of three weeks and that council staff were not given sufficient time to fully evaluate all aspects of all the tenders.  “Therefore there was not a comprehensive report to the council on all its options.”

Cr Allen said, “The reason we went the way we did, we were chasing time. There is a need to get the runway works done before the wet and cold set in.”

He said there was a bigger issue to consider.

“We need to get into our minds that the facility is no different to a road. The 600 metre runway is in dire need of repairs; we have the funds. 

“Do we do a patch up job and in five years’ time we will have to do it again and in another five years do it again, or do we go back to the lowest tenderer and get prices?

“If we are going to do a job, do it once and do it right, or do we do it piecemeal?

“I won’t be supporting the motions. The airport upgrade is critical in terms of growth and part of the big picture for the shire. To set it back is bad public policy,” said Cr Allen.

Cr Tapscott said she agreed that the airport was a major asset and that the runway needed to be repaired. 

“We have to do the patch up, but the proposal to upgrade it involves a significant amount of money and should not be done without proper planning. The pressing issue is to keep the runway safe and operational. This work should have been done (as part of the lease) but it wasn’t and now we must deal with it.”

Cr Liz Seckold said she did not support the rescission motions. “No decisions have been made (on the upgrade). The rescission motions delay essential work being carried out on the runway.”

Cr Allen asked the group manager infrastructure waste and water, Wayne Sartori, for his opinion on the urgency and timing of the works. Mr Sartori said repairs and patching could be delayed but no longer than April 2013 and he thought there was “a bit of an opportunity” in February to get the job done. 

Cr Britten made it clear that no-one had any objection to the repair work. 

“The issue at stake is upgrading the runway to a superior strength and the huge difference in cost that entails.” 

Greens councillor Keith Hughes said what the argument boiled down to was   what level of strength the runway should have. He didn’t see any reason to strengthen it. 

“As it stands it will provide a suitable runway for 10 years. What Cr Allen wants is a deeper strengthening and that is unnecessary.”

Mr Tegart said the aim of the runway upgrade was “to go in once and do it to make it sustainable for 20 years. The renewal of the runway was to retain it for use for 20 years and it would allow for the occasional larger aircraft to use it.”

Cr McBain said, “We need to peel the whole process back. I don’t think the upgrade is necessary at this stage. We should repair it and then see what comes next.”

The two rescissions were put and carried. In favour: Crs Britten, McBain, Tapscott, Taylor, Hughes and Mawhinney. Against: Crs Allen, Fitzpatrick and Seckold.

The motion put by Cr McBain and seconded by Cr Tapscott that:

1. Immediate repair work be commenced on the Merimbula Airport runway for approximately 140m up to the value of $150,000.

2. That a report be presented to council on the specification for tenders, once the successful operator for the Merimbula to Sydney route is known including what type of aircraft will be used on the route.

3. That a workshop be held regarding the Merimbula Airport and Precinct Strategy at the time the business plan is reported to council.

The motion was put and carried. In favour: Crs Britten, McBain, Tapscott, Taylor, Hughes and Mawhinney.

Against: Crs Allen, Fitzpatrick and Seckold.     

After the council meeting Cr Britten said: “The new council now has the ability to see a realistic business plan and financial costings for running the airport  with the knowledge of who the operator is and the type of aircraft that will be used in the foreseeable future. “The new council can recall for tenders for a suitable design based on that information and then adopt a revised strategy for moving forward to grow demand for the airport. That is simple common sense I would think.”

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