Back-room legislation may force airport closure

University of North Carolina Chancellor James Moeser has tried for years to get Horace Williams Airport (IGX) closed. The airport is on university grounds at Chapel Hill, grounds that Moeser wants used for other purposes.

Through what airport supporters call a “back-room, private effort to influence legislation,” Moeser and some UNC trustees have had a “preemptive airport closure” measure inserted in the current state Senate budget bill (SB-622). The Senate passed that bill on May 5, but it has yet to be reconciled with the House budget bill. Both bills contain “other contentious issues” to be discussed, but speculation is that a vote in the full legislature will come before the end of May.

Airport supporters claim that Moeser and the trustees misrepresented the closure provision to key state senators, claiming that it had been vetted and approved by airport supporters. All support group spokespersons contacted by GAN said that they were not consulted.

Only last year, the General Assembly passed a measure requiring UNC to operate Horace Williams Airport and continue to support flights for the Area Health Education Centers “until a replacement facility that is accessible to UNC-CH becomes operational” – meaning an entirely new airport. In its prohibition of IGX closure, the legislature estimated that a replacement airport would cost between $38 million and $65 million and need at least 10 years to become operational. In addition, no suitable replacement airport site could be identified, according to the measure.

According to UNC medical staff, AHEC contributes some $95 million a year to UNC hospitals and contributes far more to the health and welfare of North Carolina’s citizens. It supports hospitals and other medical schools throughout the state.

Moeser and the university trustees want to replace the airport with the Carolina North Development, which would include new university staff offices, dormitories, and low-cost housing for professors. The Chapel Hill Town Council, which has zoning authority over the airport and any development there, has expressed serious reservations about the airport’s closure, but Moeser is said to believe that the university can override any zoning ruling against it.

Moeser told GAN last year that emergency air medical service could be provided using Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), 30-some miles from Chapel Hill. He said that the average driving time from the UNC medical campus to RDU is 18 minutes. AHEC physicians said then — and now — that their medical support to the state would be reduced substantially by the closure of IGX, but will not comment for the record. One implied that the medical staff is being muzzled by university trustees. Another pointed out that his employment by UNC makes anti-closure comments unwise.

North Carolina legislators can be contacted by e-mail and fax to protest the airport closure. Contact information is at NCGA.state.nc.us.

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