Well, it looks like my cheers of victory are a little premature. While UNC Chancellor Thorp issued a statement saying the university would not pursue an airport in rural Orange County, he didn't close the door to eventually starting the process again. He said he would not support the repeal of the legislation that gave the university the power to form an airport authority. Everyone is saying that the "process" was flawed, but nobody has backed down from the assertion that the university still needs an airport.
Ok, let me get this straight. The legislation that started this mess explicitly states that in order to create an airport authority, the Board of Governors must "'find that the authority is essential to support the missions of The University of North Carolina" and that "the sole purpose of the authority is to resite Horace Williams Airport." And Chancellor Thorp has already stated what's going to happen to Horace Williams: "While we will keep Horace Williams Airport as long as we can, to realize the full potential of Carolina North, we must close the airport. When that happens, we will still need an airport. It's essential to our AHEC program. But we have an acceptable option – RDU."
That sounds like a pretty tight case. Thorp has said RDU is an "acceptable" replacement for Horace Williams. If there is an "acceptable" replacement for Horace Williams, how could the BOG consider building a new airport "essential"? At ten times the cost, I might add?
I have a few questions I wish local journalists would extract from the University:
Exactly how many doctors are going on how many flights with the AHEC program? I'd like to know just how many poor, struggling doctors we are so rudely inconveniencing by refusing to build an airport for them.
Exactly why is a new airport supposed to be so critical for the AHEC doctors? The only thing I've heard, so far, is that we don't want to increase their travel time. If you plot out the driving time from UNC Hospital on Manning Drive to RDU, it's 27 minutes. The nearest of the top picks for an airport site (say, the intersection of Dodson's Crossroads and NC-54) is 16 minutes from the hospital. So we would be spending $50 million to save 11 minutes on the drive . . . for how many people, again? If you assume a doctor is paid $250,000 a year, that comes down to about $23 per 11-minutes extra travel time, or $46 round trip. You would have to have about 1,087,000 doctor trips to the airport before you would break even on that airport. Even if you flew 200 doctors around every day, that still means it will take nearly 15 years before you've broken even on the savings in doctors' time. If someone from the University can correct me on these numbers, please do. I'd like to know what the real numbers are.
Chancellor Thorp said it was so hard for him to disappoint all those AHEC doctors . . . I would like to have one of those AHEC doctors come forward, identify himself to the press, and tell the community he lives in why it is essential to the mission of the university that his drive time is cut by eleven minutes. I'd really like to see someone do that with the straight face.
[1-16-09 Update: I found in another article on the Thorp's announcement that some AHEC doctors had testified before the legislature that the closing of Horace Williams would "cost them valuable clinic time." So someone did step forward . . . which I suppose is good, though I would still want to grill them if the airport question is reopened. I was told by a well-informed faculty member at UNC that it was most unlikely that an airport would be pursued again during Thorp's tenure as Chancellor, so that probably buys us at least five or ten years.]