Vermont transportation officials are asking for a new state-owned airplane, but at least one top lawmaker says the idea should be grounded.
"It just caught me by complete surprise that we'd be spending so much money when we don't have any money," says Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
Vermont's Agency of Transportation (VTrans) is hoping to sell its 1962 Cessna 182 aircraft and replace it with a 2013 Beechcraft Baron. The state would pay $117,600 per year for 10 years in a lease-to-buy arrangement, says VTrans policy planning and intermodal development director Chris Cole.
(Pictured above is the Cessna with state aviation program administrator Guy Rouelle.)
Given that the plane would cost $250 an hour to operate and would likely fly about 150 hours a year, Cole estimates the total annual price tag would come to $155,100.
To Mazza, who first learned of the request during a Senate Transportation Committee meeting Friday, that's too much to spend when the state budget is already tight.
"This is not a time to be asking for that kind of money when we're talking about a shortage in our total funding," Mazza says. "I have a hard time believing we can own a plane cheaper than we can rent it when we need it."
But Cole says VTrans looked into chartering planes and found that the only company that could do the job would charge $330,000 a year for similar services.
"It's proven to be more economical to actually have a plane in state service rather than chartering one," he says.
As for why VTrans needs a new one, Cole says, "Our aviation staff have determined this airplane, for what we used it for, has reached its useful life, which is not surprising for a 50-year-old airplane."
Cole says the plane is worth roughly $80,000 and requires some $83,000 worth of work to overhaul its engine and perform other maintenance work.
Secretary of Transporation Brian Searles says it's a matter of safety.
"This plane has lived its life and I don't think I want it in the air anymore doing the business of the Agency of Transportation," he says.
You could be forgiven if you weren't aware that the state even owns an airplane, but Cole says it performs essential functions for several state agencies.
VTrans uses the plane to perform safety inspections of state-owned airports, while the Agency of Natural Resources uses it to help manage rivers and forests. The plane was especially useful for monitoring damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene, Cole says.
Sometimes it even ferries around public officials.
According to Searles, Gov. Peter Shumlin has used the plane five times since becoming governor — typically when he has commitments on opposite sides of the state and not enough time to drive from one to the other.
"There's been sporadic use by governors over 50 years... There's been limited and sporadic use by this one as well, but that's not the reason," Searles says. "I just don't feel good about having our employees up in that aircraft. That's what this request is all about."
And lest you think Shumlin is planning to jet around the country in the plane — or even to the nation's capital — Cole says not so much. The Beechcraft has a range of just 400 miles with reserves.
"I don't think this is a plane he could take to D.C.," Cole says. "He'd have to stop a lot."
As for whether VTrans' proposal will fly with Senate Transportation, Mazza says, "I wouldn't bet a lot on it."
File photo of Rouelle and the Cessna by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.