Improved taxiways, tower troubles and pay-for-parking in the works

State and Mercer County officials have announced a flurry of changes coming to Trenton-Mercer airport in the next few weeks, including repaving crucial taxiways, the impending closure of the air traffic control tower and the end of free parking.

Look at Taxiway Bravo at the Mercer County Airport, and you would see a piece of blacktop that looks blacker and smoother than almost any other road in Ewing.

But to the trained eye, the taxiway, which connects two runways at the airport, is at the end of its useful life.

“See that?” said County Executive Brian Hughes, pointing to a crack in a nearby concrete apron. “All you need is for one piece of concrete to get loose and land in one of those engines and you have a $30 million jet on the ground.”

The smallest pebble would be enough to ruin the huge turbofan engines that propel the Airbus A-319 passenger jets that Frontier Airlines has been operating at Trenton-Mercer since November. To keep those planes flying, all of the surfaces have to be in pristine condition.

State Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno announced March 15 that the state will grant the airport $2.5 million to rehabilitate taxiways Bravo, Hotel and Foxtrot, and install lights and pavement markings.

Officials at the announcement press conference, which was held at the airport, indicated that they are pinning their hopes for the future of the economy of Mercer County on those few thousand feet of tarmac.

“The project is going to allow me to market New Jersey as we have already as the best educated place to do business and also the most perfectly located place to do business,” Guadagno said.

Department of Transportation commissioner James Simpson called the airport an asset that would cost “billions of dollars” to build from scratch.

Mayor Bert Steinmann said he has heard increased interest from companies wishing to relocate in Ewing since Frontier started flying out of Trenton-Mercer.

“As a result of it, I’ve had more and more inquiries about corporate projects,” he said.

However, before the verdict was announced March 22, Hughes worried that the looming closure of the FAA control tower due to federal budget cuts could affect the future economic viability of the airport. Hughes said that while Frontier told him their pilots were experienced in taking off and landing at uncontrolled airports, and that the flights would continue, more flights might be diverted to other airports in bad weather.

“It’s a fragile environment,” he said. “You want people to believe that this airport is safe. We’ve had a 100 percent safety rating going back 10 years. But if people don’t think it’s safe because the towers are empty, even though Frontier has a long history of working in airports without air traffic controllers in the past, the public could lose trust in the airport.”

There is one more change coming to the airport that will be much more visible to the flying public than re-paved taxiways or empty control towers: with the parking lot being filled on a regular basis, the days of free parking at the airport are numbered.

“People expect to pay to park at airports and we are going to charge what the typical fees are for parking,” Hughes said, though he did not give a specific date for the change.

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Diccon Hyatt is business editor of U.S. 1. He has worked for Community News since 2006 and was previously community editor of the Ewing Observer, the Hopewell Express, the Lawrence Gazette, and the Trenton Downtowner. From 2003 to 2006, he was a general assignment reporter for the Middletown Transcript in Middletown, Delaware. In 2002, he graduated from the University of Delaware, where he was features editor of the student newspaper, The Review. He has won numerous awards from the Maryland-Delaware D.C. Press Association and the Association of Free Community Newspapers for features, news, and opinion writing. He is married and lives in Marlton, NJ.