The East Hampton Town Board voted 4 to 0 last Wednesday to seek an $828,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to pay 90 percent of the cost of resurfacing a secondary runway at the East Hampton Airport and to buy some land adjacent to the airport as a noise buffer.
East Hampton is a wealthy Long Island farming and resort community with a population of 14,000 in the winter and 60,000 in the summer. Several estates are valued in the millions and most of those who use the small, no-tower airport are wealthy.
Its own airline service, East Hampton Aire, charges $60 a pop to fly a 14-seater between East Hampton and LaGuardia Airport in New York. The seasonally adjusted schedule reaches four round trips a day on summer Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Despite the community's wealth, according to board member Randall Parsons, "the type of expenses involved" in repairing the airport "would be unpalatable to local taxpayers."
The grant, which must first be reviewed and approved by the FAA's regional headquarters in New York, would come the giant Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which pays not only for airport improvements but for aviation research and development, equipment purchases such as the FAA's planned new $10 billion air traffic control computer system and to pay salaries of air traffic controllers.
That fund, in turn, comes primarily from the pockets of airline passengers nationwide in the form of an 8 percent tax they pay on tickets. The rest comes from other aviation sources, including taxes on air freight and on fuel used by business and pleasure aircraft.
East Hampton figures it contributes about $30,000 a year to the trust fund through taxes collected at the airport.
Its grant would come from the trust fund's airport improvement kitty, which totals about $527 million this year and which finances 650 to 850 airport projects every year.
"Generally, the ability of the airport to pay is not a factor and is not supposed to be a factor" in the distribution of grants, according to a congressional staffer. "The program is supposed to be directed to the greatest need first."
It is instructive, in studying the East Hampton case, to see how federal programs tend to perpetuate themselves even in hard times. Parsons, one of two Democrats on a five-member board and the chairman of the town's airport committee, provided this history:
The East Hampton Airport was a New Deal project, built in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration. Over the years, it got a little seedy and maintenance was not always performed regularly.
By 1979, the main runway needed resurfacing. So for the first time, East Hampton sought FAA money.
The FAA approved the grant on condition that East Hampton also develop a master plan for the airport. The FAA approved another grant to pay for 90 percent of the consultant's fees for the $50,000 master plan.
The plan became highly controversial in East Hampton because, Parsons said, residents feared it meant developmental growth that would change the nature of the community.
But the plan can be amended and will be, Parsons said, to take out the politically unacceptable parts. Once that was resolved, everyone agreed that the secondary runway, which also serves as ramp to the terminal area, needed a new coat of asphalt.
What would have happened, Parsons was asked, if there were no federal aid program for the airport resurfacing?
"I guess we would borrow money and raise taxes to pay for it," he said. "We would have increased landing fees" that airports routinely charge planes that use their runways.
"I think the airport relieves pressure on the highways and keeps the affluent summer community here, spending money and keeping open land," said Parsons.