Inside the Capitol

Monday, September 13, 2004

Is Presidential Visit Worth a Ruined Runway?

SANTA FE – Several of New Mexico’s larger communities have been honored by numerous visits from the presidential and vice presidential candidates this summer. Las Cruces, Roswell and Albuquerque have been getting much attention.
Farmington, Rio Rancho, Las Vegas and Gallup also have had visits. Santa Fe has been conspicuous by its lack of attention, likely because it is highly Democrat, with few swing voters. It also could be due to not having much of an airport and even less of a train station.
Las Cruces doesn’t have much of an airport either. Like Santa Fe, it is close enough to a major airport that it isn’t practical for the big birds to fly into either city. Air Force One usually lands in El Paso or Albuquerque and presidents will take smaller craft to Las Cruces and Santa Fe. On one occasion President Bush landed at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo and the president took a smaller plane to Las Cruces.
But on Aug. 26, President Bush was anxious to get on to Albuquerque and Farmington, so the huge 757s carrying the president and press corps and the even bigger C-17 cargo planes carrying equipment landed on Las Cruces’ weak runways. And even worse, they landed on the airport’s weakest of three runways, which they had been asked not to use.
A large amount of cracking appeared, along with two-inch ruts at the intersection with another runway. The runway has had to be closed and will remain that way until an estimated $1 million of repairs is done. Fortunately the runway held up well enough that none of the planes was damaged. That would have made national news in a big way.
It is unclear why the pilots decided to land on that runway. Possibly they weren’t told of its poor condition. An airport spokesman says when he warned a presidential advance team about the runway, the answer was that it looked OK to them.
Did the Secret Service know the runway wasn’t strong enough to handle the president’s plane? If it did, its action in not being super cautious was very out of character. Secret Service specifications for ensuring the safety of a president require excessive caution. Platforms, for instance, have to be constructed of extremely high-grade lumber and built to tremendous strength standards.
The reason for landing on the puny runway may have been that the wind direction made it best. For safety reasons, that may have outweighed the fact that it might hurt the runway. As long as it didn’t hurt the planes, or most importantly, the president, then who cares about the runway. That’s the city’s problem.
All the federal agencies involved, plus the president’s campaign committee, are pointing their fingers at each other. No one is responsible, so Las Cruces is left holding the bag. Airports, like highways, are primarily financed by federal money.
Las Cruces Mayor Bill Mattiace hopes this will move his city’s airport up on the federal the list, but people who have dealt with the federal government say don’t bet on it.
Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez ended up deciding his city would pay the towing costs of legally-parked cars hauled from the Albuquerque train station because Secret Service agents felt they were endangering Sen. John Kerry on his trip to the city. Chavez billed the Secret Service. There will be cows grazing on the Las Cruces runway before Albuquerque sees that money.
Some of the towns lucky enough to get multiple visits from presidential candidates are trying to bill those campaign committees for their exorbitant expenses. Those costs often are more than just police overtime. Davenport, Iowa had three bank robberies the day both Bush and Kerry visited, and two more robberies the next day.
Democrat vice-presidential candidate John Edwards visited Las Cruces the same day as the president’s visit. We haven’t heard of any bank robberies that day, but a ruined runway is even worse.


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