Westside Economic Alliance Overstates Economic Benefits of the Hillsboro Airport

Miki Barnes, LCSW
June 5, 2014

On February 21, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an opinion stating that the addition of a third runway at the Hillsboro Airport (HIO) – a shorter runway primarily to accommodate flight training businesses and recreational enthusiasts – will have no significant impact on the environment.[1] Hillsboro Airport is already one of the biggest polluters in Washington County and construction of another runway will nearly double the capacity at this facility.

HIO was initially established in 1928. Over the years it has expanded from a grassy airstrip to the largest general aviation airport in the state. In some years it has logged more operations than Portland International Airport (PDX), the largest commercial airport in Oregon. Yet during the entire 84 years of its existence an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which requires the FAA to take a “hard look” at the impact of this airport on the environment and the community, has never been done.

There are a number of misleading statements in the final version of the Hillsboro Airport Supplemental Environmental Assessment promoting a third runway. One such statement, which is the focus of this article, is contained in a letter submitted by the Westside Economic Alliance voicing support for the expansion.[2] As an aside, it is worth noting that the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, in their letter of support for the third runway[3], made claims similar to those put forth by the Westside Economic Alliance. Neither group provided source material citations for their claims.

The Westside Economic Alliance characterizes itself as a “pro-business voice” with a primary focus on economic development. In addition to private businesses, its membership includes Washington County and the city of Hillsboro as well as a number of other municipalities, though the Port of Portland is the only member municipality totally lacking in voter elected representation.[4]

Westside Economic Alliance Misrepresents Hillsboro Airport Jobs and Revenue

In their testimony, the Westside Economic Alliance asserted,

“General aviation and passenger activity at Hillsboro Airport generated 1,199 direct, induced and indirect jobs in the Portland metropolitan area and $75.7 million of business revenue in 2011.”[5]

This statement deserves careful scrutiny, as it conflicts with Port documentation on this topic. A 3/15/12 report entitled The Local and Regional Economic Impacts of the Port of Portland 2011 prepared for the Port of Portland by Martin Associates[6] fails to confirm the Westside Economic Alliance‚Äôs job assertion numbers for HIO. The report includes a section on the economic impacts of the Port of Portland owned and operated general aviation airports at Hillsboro and Troutdale, and further noted that, “The Mulino general aviation airport also owned by the Port reported no activity for 2011.”[7]

In the Martin Associates report, there is no differentiation between Hillsboro and Troutdale as separate airports. Instead, the data is merged together as though they are a single entity.

“The general aviation activity at the two airports created 1,191 direct, induced and indirect jobs...Local businesses received $71.9 million from services provided at the two airports...”[8]

This suggests that the Westside Economic Alliance erroneously ascribed credit to the Hillsboro Airport for the economic and business impacts of the Troutdale Airport, a publicly subsidized facility located 23 miles to the east of HIO in Multnomah County.

In fact, the job creating and revenue generating potential of these airports comes at a substantial cost to the American public.

Public Outlay for Hillsboro and Troutdale Airport Jobs

To illustrate how much public money is being funneled into privately-owned businesses at the Hillsboro Airport, it is instructive to look at the direct (496), induced (274) and indirect (421) jobs[9] listed in the Martin Associates report in relation to the total cost of the HIO third runway project. The document describes direct jobs as “those jobs held by employees of a particular firm, and are measured in terms of full-time equivalent positions.”[10] Indirect jobs, by contrast, are estimated based on the local purchases of firms and Port tenants.

According to Port estimates the runway project is expected to cost $17.2 Million[11] in federal and state dollars. At this price, using the Martin Associate's 2011 figures, the 496 direct jobs at Hillsboro and Troutdale airports combined are comparable to extending a $34,677 subsidy per job for a full year. If the Troutdale Airport jobs were subtracted out, the subsidy per direct job at HIO alone would be even higher.

When spreading the $17.2 Million outlay for a third runway at HIO over the combined total of direct, indirect and induced jobs at Hillsboro and Troutdale airports, the public subsidy per job comes to $14,441. This does not factor in public expenditures for other projects at the Troutdale Airport.

Public Money for Hillsboro Airport Operations

Another way to frame the costs of the third runway is to contrast the overall monetary outlay to the number of annual operations (an operation is a landing or a take-off). The total operational count at HIO in 2011 was 212,542. Using this 2011 figure, a $17.2 Million runway expansion project translates into a one-year subsidy of nearly $81 per landing or take-off. In other words, each time a student pilot practices a “touch and go” training maneuver which is counted as one landing and one take-off, the cost to the public would be $162.

Please note, the $17.2 Million applies only to third runway infrastructure costs and does not include the millions in public resources annually invested to staff and maintain the air traffic control towers at these airports. Nor does it include the cost of other publicly subsidized infrastructure projects at HIO. For example, in 2013 the Port invested in a $9.1 Million crosswind runway repaving and rehabilitation project. The FAA provided $7 Million of the total[12] which translates into a public subsidy of $32 for each of the 215,861 operations at HIO in 2013, thus a single “touch and go” training maneuver performed by a student pilot in 2013 was underwritten by the public to the tune of $64 per operation. It is also worth noting that the classroom coursework of a number of these student pilots is additionally subsidized via property taxes funneled to Portland Community College's Rock Creek Aviation Sciences program.

The Westside Economic Alliance letter speaks in glowing terms about the corporate jets flying in and out of the Hillsboro Airport, but this accounts for a very small percentage of the air traffic at this facility. The Hillsboro Airport Draft Environmental Assessment on the proposed HIO third runway project stated that in 2007, out of 240,735 operations only 7,008,[13] less than 3 percent, were listed as corporate jets. These flights can easily be managed on the two existing runways already in place at HIO.

The list of transportation projects proposed by the Port at HIO doesn't stop with the third runway. The 2013 Port Transportation Plan includes an additional $37.9 Million in publicly funded projects it intends to carry out within the next 5 years and a $4.7 Million project that falls within the 10 year framework.[14] The Port of Portland has owned and operated the Hillsboro Airport for 48 years yet, despite a lengthy history of receiving lavish cash infusions from public coffers, has not been able to achieve a self-sustaining business model; as a result it remains chronically reliant on public handouts.

The question that then arises is why does the Westside Economic Alliance believe that an airport that is primarily involved in the business of recruiting student pilots from outside the country to train over area homes and neighborhoods at considerable financial expense to the American public, contributes to the economy? In fact, the preponderance of evidence reveals that the airport actually represents a significant drain on limited public resources.

Sources

[1] Hillsboro Airport Parallel Runway 12L/30R Final Supplemental Environmental Assessment. Prepared for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by the Port of Portland. Volume II. (February 2014). Available online at http://www.portofportland.com/pdfpop/HIO_SEA_Final_Vol1.pdf.

[2] Ibid. Vol. 2. Pg. G. 1-8 and G. 1-9.

[3] Ibid. Vol. 2. Pg. G. 3-15.

[4] Westside Economic Alliance website. Available at http://www.westside-alliance.org/pages/abt-pages/what-we-do.html.

[5] Hillsboro Airport Parallel Runway 12L/30R Final Supplemental Environmental Assessment. Prepared for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by the Port of Portland. Volume II. (February 2014). Available online at http://www.portofportland.com/pdfpop/HIO_SEA_Final_Vol1.pdf, Pg. G.1-8 and G1-9.

[6] The Local and Regional Economic Impacts of the Port of Portland 2011. Prepared for the Port of Portland by Martin Associates. (3/15/12). Pg. 14. Available online at http://www.portofportland.com/PDFPOP/Trade_Trans_Studies_Ecnmc_Impact_2011.pdf.

[7] Ibid. Pg. 11.

[8] Ibid. Pg. 14.

[10] Ibid. Pg. 2.

[11] Hillsboro Airport Parallel Runway Project. Port of Portland website. Available at http://portofportland.reachlocal.net/Prj_HIO_Prll_Rnwy.aspx.

[12] Theen, Andrew. Hillsboro Airport: $9.1 Million Runway Construction Project On Schedule for Completion This Fall. Oregonian. (8/23/13). Available online at http://www.oregonlive.com/hillsboro/index.ssf/2013/08/hillsboro_airport_91_million_r.html#incart_river_default.

[13] Hillsboro Airport Draft Environmental Assessment. Prepared for the Port of Portland by CH2MHILL. Volume 1, Pg. 5. 1-5. (October 2009). Available online at http://www.portofportland.com/notices/HIO_Prl_Rnwy_04_BLT.htm.

[14] 2013 Port Transportation Improvement Plan - Draft. Port of Portland. (1/09/13). Pg. 12-13. Available online at http://www.portofportland.com/notices/HIO_Prl_Rnwy_04_BLT.htm.

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