OPINION: Tupelo’s continuing growth is firmly linked to an adequate airport

By Carlyle S. Harris

Editor’s note: The version of this column published Sunday contained transcription errors. We are republishing in the interest of context and accuracy. We apologize for the errors.

I was the one member of the Tupelo Airport Authority who voted against a motion to delay the runway lengthening and Colonial Estates Road improvements which the FAA had funded and approved.
The reason I gave was that we should not do anything which might jeopardize this funding or cause undue delay or cancellation of the projects. After reading the articles and editorial in the Daily Journal, I now believe the split vote had helped the project by educating readers and bringing more awareness to the issues involved. It is very important and in keeping with Tupelo tradition that the mayor, the City Council, the Airport Authority and informed citizenry work together to achieve the best overall solutions to our problems.
I now believe that it may still be possible to stay on the original schedule and that when construction does begin everyone will have had a better consensus that we are doing the right thing.
n A Win/Win Solution: Having been a member of the Tupelo Airport Authority and chairman of the Jackson Street Relocation Committee, I have been deeply involved with the runway extension project discussions. So far the discussions have taken an either/or (a win/lose) direction. I believe there is another approach which would be a win/win situation.
The basic formula for the win/win approach would be to accept the FAA funding for the runway extension ($9.3 million) and for improving Colonial Estates Road ($2.5 million) at the earliest possible date. Concurrently the city should seek funding for a tunnel ($8.3 million to $10 million) or fund the least expensive alternative – a road from improved Colonial Estates Road straight across to Coley Road on the north side of the Buffalo Park (engineering estimate:: $1.5 million)
The first finished portion of the project would be the Colonial Estates Road improvement to McCullough. Depending on the time necessary for the city to obtain funding, the tunnel project or the east/west connector from Colonial Estates Road to Coley Road could be pursued concurrently. At the same time, the runway lengthening would progress.
n The need for a longer runway: For the last six years the Airport Authority has pursued lengthening the runway and for the last four years has worked actively with the FAA to achieve this end, keeping the then city mayors and city councils informed. The thousands of hours and money expended on this effort were justified because our runway is not adequate now. Even for the Saab turboprop commuter aircraft which have served Tupelo, on hot summer days some have had to reduce weight by taking on less fuel, passengers or baggage to meet takeoff requirements.
Delta Air Lines has informed us that by the end of next year the Saabs will be phased out to be replaced by regional jets.
We know that two air freight companies have shown an interest in locating at Tupelo if we were to have a lengthened runway. We also know that Federal Express has shown an interest in using Tupelo as a weather alternate when we have a longer runway. Any further use of the airport will generate additional income which will reduce the city’s potential liability to fund the airport if it cannot be self-sustaining. The most compelling argument for the runway is the ability of the airport to be in a position to meet future economic growth. Just like the PUL Alliance was formed long before Toyota decided on that location, the Tupelo Airport must have a runway which will meet the needs of further development of industry in this part of Mississippi. Should one of the requirements of an industry seeking to locate in the Southeast of the United States be an 8,000 foot runway nearby, Tupelo would be rejected on that criterion alone, and we probably wouldn’t even know it.
n The need for streets: It is only a matter of time before West Jackson Street in the Runway Protection Zone (RPZ) must be relocated. Colonial Estates Road needs improvement now (a city responsibility) and that need will be greater as more housing development occurs along the road. The FAA is not responsible for building and maintaining access roads to airports. However, the FAA has agreed to provide funding for improving Colonial Estates Road because it is considered part of the expense of removing and relocating that portion of West Jackson Street which is situated in the RPZ of our airport now. The cost of that project is estimated to be $2.5 million which is a direct benefit to the city. It would seem prudent to have Colonial Estates Road improved at no cost to the city when a connector from that street to Coley Road can be built by the city for approximately $1.5 million. Should the city be able to obtain congressional funding for the tunnel option, that would be the best possible solution and everybody would win.

Carlyle S. Harris is a retired lawyer and banker who has been actively involved in Tupelo’s civic leadership. He is a former U.S. Air Force officer and pilot. Write to him at 1319 East Pinecrest Dr., Tupelo, MS 38804.