Airport fence project raises business concerns

A gap in the security fence at Grand Junction Regional Airport soon could be filled with a security gate. The airport authority board plans to have the gates in place in September as part of a federally funded project to keep wildlife away from runways and beef up security under directions from the Transportation Safety Administration. At least one board member is concerned, though, security gates could harm businesses at the airport. (Business Times photo by Mike Moran)

The installation of a security fence around Grand Junction Regional Airport has some businesses concerned about access to their operations.

The project also has members of the Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority Board at odds over whether or not work should move forward as planned.

At least one board member has raised concerns that fencing and security gates would make access to businesses more difficult and potentially hurt those businesses.

“I don’t know if we’re looking at any other options,” said Bill Pitts, a member of the Grand Junction City Council who sits on the airport board.

Pitts said he’s a worried fencing and gates would require visitors to at least three businesses on airport grounds to display a security badge to enter the area. He said he wonders what’s wrong with the current system in which visitors can drive up to a business and walk into its doors. Visitors currently face security screening only prior to exiting the businesses and walking onto the tarmac or air operations area. “The gates are not necessary,” Pitts added.

Tom LaCroix, chairman of the airport board, and Rex Tippetts, airport manager, both disagreed. They said the board can move ahead with the fencing and let the federal government foot the bill of $3.4 million or look at alternatives that would entail charging businesses for fencing. Either way, the airport is under pressure from the federal Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) to beef up security.

“We have a board committee that has been looking at several options,” LaCroix said. “It boils down to who’s going to pay.”

The federal Department of Agriculture originally proposed the fence to keep wildlife away from the runways, according to a news release issued by the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration approved funding for the project.

In addition to preventing aircraft from colliding with wildlife, the fence would provide additional security and potentially satisfy TSA security requirements, according to the news release. The TSA is dissatisfied with the current method of controlling access to the air operations area.

The TSA doesn’t usually dictate specific security measures, but establishes general guidelines and allows each airport to craft specific plans, the news release stated.

That’s one reason Pitts believes the airport board could consider options other than entry gates. “You can eliminate the gates,” he said. “Come up with a plan and initiate it.”

If the TSA accepts the plan, then all sides could be satisfied, Pitts said.

But the fencing and gates could endanger businesses, he said. “There are some businesses that won’t be able to exist with the new security measures.”

It would be unwieldy for a business owners to leave their operations and open gates for vendors to make deliveries, Pitts said.

Bill Pitts

LaCroix believes otherwise. He said 90 percent of drivers who make deliveries already have security badges and would be able to open the gates.

To get badges, people must pass criminal background checks and prove they’re not terrorist threats.

The fence would be funded with a federal grant, LaCroix said. Federal funds can’t be used on private leaseholds, a situation that would occur under alternative proposals, he added. The board opposes charging local businesses to help pay for a wildlife fence and security upgrades.

Because the fence has been discussed for eight years, the TSA is growing impatient, Tippetts said. “We need to get in compliance with TSA rules as soon as possible.”

If the local airport were to fail to make security changes to satisfy the TSA, the federal agency could take drastic measures, Tippetts said. “They could stop screening at the airport. That would halt commercial air traffic.”

After considering at least seven security options since late May, the airport board has decided on the most viable option, Tippetts said.

Construction of the fence is under way and security gates are scheduled to be constructed in September. The airport board is scheduled to discuss the issue further during its Aug. 16 meeting at the main airport terminal.