Trump’s budget could eliminate Adirondack airline

A Cape Air pilot guides a nine-seat Cessna 402 over the Adirondack Mountains at sunset in August 2015. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

SARANAC LAKE — Tri-Lakes area air travel and tourism could be altered significantly if President Donald Trump’s proposed budget blueprint is passed with its current call to eliminate program funding to commercial air service in rural communities, including here.

To offset major increases in defense spending, President Trump proposes $54 billion in cuts to various federal programs, including slashing the $175 million annual allotment for Essential Air Service. It’s a program that was enacted nearly four decades ago to provide a minimal level of scheduled passenger airline service to rural communities where it otherwise would not be profitable.

EAS subsidizes airline service at 159 U.S., 44 of which are in Alaska. Six are in New York, including five in the North Country: Lake Clear, Plattsburgh, Massena, Ogdensburg, Watertown and Jamestown in western New York.

In a 62-page proposal released last month, titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” Trump’s office deems EAS a temporary program from the late 1970s. The executive office’s reasoning for eliminating it is that EAS-funded flights are often not full and have high subsidy costs per passenger.

“Several EAS-eligible communities are relatively close to major airports, and communities that have EAS could be served by other existing modes of transportation,” the document reads. “This proposal would result in a discretionary savings of $175 million from the 2017 annualized (continuing resolution) level.”

At Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear, manager Corey Hurwitch said the elimination of EAS would have a “wide and drastic effect.” The program provided more than $1.8 million to subsidize Cape Air’s three daily round-trip flights year-round between Lake Clear and Boston’s Logan International Airport on Cessna 402 airplanes, which hold nine passengers each. Cape Air is the only commercial carrier currently flying out of Adirondack Regional, which is owned and run by the town of Harrietstown. To Hurwitch’s knowledge, Adirondack Regional’s annual EAS subsidy is in the ballpark of $1.8 million per year.

“There is a lot of time for this (budget proposal) to change,” Hurwitch added. “That’s what we are hoping for.”

Meanwhile, he stressed that the ramifications for his airport would be “drastic, for sure” if EAS is abruptly cut without a phase-out period. He hopes the airport would establish “some sort of” commercial service with Cape Air or another carrier. He added that the airport does not have any unsubsidized commercial flights at this time, though during past summer seasons Cape Air has operated a fourth daily flight on its own.

“But it became difficult for them to sustain,” Hurwitch said.

Airport managers and local elected officials such as Harrietstown town Supervisor Michael Kilroy haven’t wasted time in contacting federal representatives to relay their discontent with Trump’s proposal. Hurwitch said it was agreed to at a recent Harrietstown town board meeting to draft a letter to U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik about the elimination of EAS.

Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, called the EAS cut “reckless and counterproductive” in a press release. He said the Adirondack Regional Airport served 9,547 passengers in 2016 compared with 13,432 in Plattsburgh, 10,554 in Massena, 8,233 in Ogdensburg and 3,537 in Jamestown.

“There is no question about it — access to air travel is good for businesses, good for jobs, good for the middle class and good for financial health of the community,” he said.

Stefanik, a Republican from Willsboro, has not specifically mentioned EAS but said she does not support Trump’s budget proposal and that “ultimately Congress controls the power of the purse and will write the final federal spending plan.”

Adirondack tourism leaders see the potential loss of airline service in Lake Clear as a detriment to the economy as well.

In early January when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $38 million investment in an expanded Plattsburgh International Airport as a “North Country aviation gateway,” Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism CEO Jim McKenna was adamant that airport improvements are critical to Adirondack tourism efforts. McKenna has said he views a refurbished Plattsburgh International as a “destination airport” that, paired with Adirondack Regional, would help to bring in more international events and conferences to the Tri-Lakes region. Plattsburgh International also receives EAS subsidies.

McKenna is currently wrapping up a trip to Europe with Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall, working to bring three major international events to the Adirondacks over a five-year span: the International Children’s Games in 2019, the Special Olympics World Winter Games in 2021 and the World University Games in 2023. Speaking from Europe late last week, McKenna said EAS is called “essential for a reason.

“Especially for regions like ours,” he continued. “The elimination of that funding would not only affect commercial flight service to the region but would have a ripple effect with respect to associated contributors to the economy, such as car rentals and other services to which customers are accustomed.”

McKenna went on to stress that EAS funding does not come from the federal government’s general fund. Rather, it is similar to a user fee, such as taxes on aviation fuel and incoming international flights.

“We’re certainly in support of this funding,” McKenna said. “Sen. Schumer is on top of this issue, and ROOST will continue to identify the value of and lobby for this funding as well.”

How Trump’s budget could affect northern New York

Increases:

¯ Military, which may include the Army base at Fort Drum

¯ Homeland Security, which includes staff at the U.S.-Canada border

¯ Veterans Affairs, which could increase VA medical offerings

Cuts — Trump’s budget proposal would eliminate or severely reduce these federal programs:

¯ Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps many people heat their homes

¯ Essential Air Service, which funds rural passenger service

¯ Community Development Block Grants, which recently has helped Tupper Lake microenterprises, Saranac Lake storefront facade renovations, the Jay Community Center in AuSable Forks and housing rehabilitation for low- and moderate-income people

¯ AmeriCorps, which has done trail and invasive species work in the Adirondacks since 1998

¯ Public broadcasting funds for North Country Public Radio and Mountain Lake PBS — NCPR says this would remove 13 percent of its budget.

¯ The Environmental Protection Agency, including its Clean Power Plan, perhaps leading to increased acid rain and mercury poisoning Adirondack waters and forests

¯ National Institutes of Health, which pays for some research at Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake

¯ Raise fees for National Flood Insurance Program

To read President Trump’s full budget blueprint, go to https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/2018_blueprint.pdf.

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