Bill could trigger search for new Orange County airport
by Kirk Ross
The North Carolina House and Senate will need to work out differences for a bill that would allow the University of North Carolina and UNC Health Care to create an airport authority, but supporters anticipate that some form of the legislation will pass this session.
The Senate passed its version earlier this month. This week, the state House modified the bill to more narrowly tailor it to efforts to site and build a new airport in Orange County.
Kevin Fitzgerald, executive associate dean for finance and administration with the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, said that among the changes the House adopted is language that specifies Orange County as the site for a new airport.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted not to concur with the House version, a formality that paves the way for a conference committee to be named to work out the differences.
Fitzgerald said the two versions of the bill will need to be reconciled, but he expects to see some form of the measure emerge from this summer’s short session.
After that, he said, it will be up to the chancellor and the board of trustees and the board of governors to agree to move forward to set up an airport authority.
“My sense is that they would move ahead with this,” Fitzgerald said.
Once in place, the new authority would need to pursue federal funding for the project and begin a site search. Fitzgerald said that the main goal for now is to get the governing authority into place. He said it is likely a five-to-ten-year process to get a new airport in place.
The new airport would replace Horace Williams Airport and become home to the university’s Med Air operations, which is used by the school’s Area Health Education Centers program.
The Horace Williams land has been identified as a prime area for part of the university’s Carolina North project.
An airport proximate to the university and the medical school was last explored in 2005, but UNC’s board of trustees opted instead to move Med Air’s airplanes and offices to Raleigh Durham International, a shift opposed by some legislators, AHEC doctors and Med Air employees.
At a legislative hearing last year, Med Air pilots and AHEC clinicians said taxing rules at RDU along with the additional travel time to and from the airport would reduce the amount of time doctors could spend in clinics around the state.
In late May, Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican and the chamber’s deputy minority leader, introduced legislation that would explicitly prevent the closure of Horace Williams Airport until a new airport “within 10 nautical miles” of Horace Williams is ready for use by AHEC. That legislation, which also would freeze university spending on planning, design and materials for a hangar at RDU, has stalled for now in the Senate appropriations committee.