January 11, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Work on extending the main runway at the Union County Airport has begun with an environmental assessment.

Expected to cost more than $1 million, the runway will be 600 to 700 feet longer than it is now. The environmental assessment probably will take about six months, said Dennis Spray, the countys general services director.

The runway is being extended as a safety measure, Spray said, and the Federal Aviation Administration will bear 90 percent of construction costs, with 10 percent coming from the county.

The results of the environmental assessment will partly dictate how the runway is extended. It will go either toward Pierce Lane or Airport Way, but no matter the direction, the county must buy some private property to accommodate the additional length. Preliminary talks with landowners have taken place, but no decisions on purchase have been made, Spray said.

An extended runway was first announced as part of the airport master plan, completed in 1988.

Spray said that ideally, the design will be finished by next fall, and bids will be awarded next winter. The longer runway might be built during 2003.

The cost of operating and improving the airport is almost entirely dependent on funds from the air tankers that drop retardant on wildfires. The income from Forest Service airplanes was down in 2001 from the previous year, but Spray said that it is sufficient to operate the airport for the year.

Income from fuel sales and landing fees during the summer was $400,164, compared to $594,778 for 2000. Nearby fires, including two fires in or near Hells Canyon, contributed to the higher sales of 2000. The number of landings was down by 146.

General aviation use at the airport contributes very little to the overall revenue, Spray said, although two freight carriers, Fed-Ex and United Parcel Service, fly in and out of the airport daily.

As far as diversifying, were pretty limited, Spray said. The county is willing to look at the possibility of commercial flights, if a carrier wants to come into La Grande, he said. So far, no commercial carrier has expressed interest in landing at the airport, although the airport at Pendleton is looking for a commercial carrier to provide service to Boise. Should eastbound air service come to Pendleton, Union County would ask for service.

Weve looked and looked (for a commercial airliner). Weve talked to some smaller commuter-type airlines, but theyve shown no interest at this point, Spray said. If we had an airline that was interested in coming in, wed be aggressive do whatever we had to do.