Despite AOPA's best efforts to stop it, the " stealth amendment" passed Congress Friday, granting the City of Rialto special dispensation to sell the airport. That amendment had been slipped into the conference negotiations over the massive highway funding bill.
AOPA had lobbied members of the conference committee, including Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), and Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), to strip out the section of the bill affecting Rialto. All expressed strong opposition to the special exemption for Rialto, but Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) was "able to persuade lawmakers to leave the land transfer language in," Jim Specht, a spokesman for Lewis, told the Press-Enterprise newspaper of Riverside, California. Lewis represents the Riverside District next to Rialto. He's also chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the most powerful people in Congress.
Rialto city officials have been trying for the past four years to close the airport in favor of more profitable development of the land adjacent to the Interstate 210 extension now under construction. Well-financed developers have been pushing the levers of power to make it possible for the city to sell the airport.
The Rialto airport has been in decline for a number of years, even closing the taxiway at times for drag racing. The airport has become less attractive in part due to city neglect, but another factor is the plethora of area airports. Ten other GA airports are located within 20 nm of Rialto, including the former Norton Air Force Base, which became San Bernardino International (SBD) with a 10,000-foot runway and plenty of expansion room. SBD is only 8.5 nm from Rialto Municipal Airport.
AOPA had worked hard to keep the airport open, including trying to rally local pilots, lobbying city officials, and testifying at several public hearings. But the "perfect storm" of a cash-strapped city, well-connected developers, and willing congressional representatives trumped the generally muted response of local pilots.
"We hate losing any airport," said AOPA President Phil Boyer, "and we'll continue to do everything within our power to keep GA airports open and vibrant. If there's any consolation, it's that it literally took an act of Congress to kill this one."
August 2, 2005