Our Opinion: Runway project boosts airport, city, county

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A city can mount the best public relations campaign money can buy, touting its arts scene, nightlife, sophisticated culture, its conduciveness as a place to raise a family — but in the end, one of the pillars its reputation rests upon is the quality of its airport. In the city of Pittsfield, in the absence of airlines, visitors arriving by air are often the type with the means to afford private aviation.

Berkshire County may boast attractions second to none in the nation for a community of its size, but the business executives and those of means who arrive in private aircraft are not likely to be impressed when their first encounter with the Shire City is a bone-rattling landing on a pocked runway more suited to a third-world backwater than the seat of a county known for its beauty and culture.

Pittsfield's airport has two runways, which bear the dubious distinction of being some of the worst airport pavement in New England (Eagle, August 23.) They are so dilapidated that they are literally beyond repair — pieces of them have to be raked out of the way to keep them from getting sucked into airplane engines. This sorry state of affairs reflects poorly on an area in the midst of redefinition and rebirth.

Last week, the answer to this sorry state of affairs came in the form of a Federal Aviation Administration grant of $6.6 million that will cover 90 percent of the cost of constructing brand-new landing and takeoff strips. Because the grant was slightly higher than requested by the city of Pittsfield, money will be available for LED lighting improvements as well.

Pittsfield and MassDOT will each have to pay $300,000 to cover the balance of the cost, but that's a bargain considering what Berkshire County will be getting in return, which is a proper transportation gateway that will last for many years, making it more attractive for commercial interests to locate in the vicinity and for tourists to bring their much-needed patronage. Moreover, the tax revenue that has been spent over the years on short-term repairs can be redirected to more critical projects in the city.

The effort to improve the airport over the years has not been an easy one. The expansion project of several years ago was initially steeped in controversy but eventually a solid compromise plan that did not please everyone but was acceptable to most was agreed upon. That was an important step forward and the the runway improvement project will be as well — with, we hope, little or no controversy.

Berkshire County's highway infrastructure, repairs and upgrades here and there aside, isn't like to get much better. The county needs to improve its passenger rail connections and improve its access by air. In the case of Pittsfield's airport, improving access by air begins by improving the ground.

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