Air travel in and out of Taos could take off if pending legislation becomes law, connecting Taos Regional Airport with cities across the Southwest.
"This is the sort of thing that really could help jumpstart our economy," said Taos town manager Rick Bellis at an Inter-Governmental Council meeting Thursday (Feb.18).
Senate Bill 133, the Rural Air Service Enhancement Act, would create an aviation grant program within the New Mexico Department of Transportation, designed to support air travel to rural parts of the state.
"We have $9 million," said State Sen. Roberto "Bobby" J. Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, about the funds appropriated for the grant program. "I definitely would like to see if we can double that."
Gonzales co-sponsored the bill in the current 60-day Legislative session, along with State Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants.
The program would provide grants to municipal or county governments to be used to pay air service operators minimum revenue guarantees for opening new routes.
A municipality or county would need to have a minimum population of 20,000 people residing within a 50-mile radius of the airport in order to be eligible for a grant.
Local governments would need to provide matching funds for awarded grants - 10 percent if there is no existing air service and 50 percent if there is service. Grant awards would be capped at $1.75 million if there is no existing air service and at $1.25 million if there is service. A grant would apply for a two-year period.
Bellis shared the upgrades planned for Taos Regional Airport with the other IGC meeting attendees.
"A new terminal - the design is completed. New road. New parking lot. We're working on the industrial park," said Bellis, referring to a planned 120-acre technology and aviation park that would complement the airport.
The plans also includes water and sewer lines to the airport, and marketing efforts to get the word out. Renderings of the terminal and site plan were not available at the time of publication.
"We can open the air service around connections to L.A., San Diego, Houston and Dallas, and looking at an expanded route to either Phoenix or Denver," said Bellis. "I prefer Denver, [Taos] Ski Valley prefers Phoenix. We'll see what happens."
Beginning in 2018, Taos Regional Airport served seasonal air routes to cities in Texas, and in 2019, California through Taos Air. The airline, owned by the resort Taos Ski Valley, Inc., suspended its public charter flights in March of last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I want to thank Taos Ski Valley, Taos Air. They have taken a beating subsidizing the cost of getting service running. We were just about to go year-round, and COVID hit," said Bellis. "I appreciate that they realized that the perception of flying people in from other states that were not doing as well as we were, to this area, even though it may have economically relieved their burden."
"They wanted to be good community partners. So they're eating the full cost of putting all that on standby," he concluded.
"On Senate Bill 133, it mentions turboprop airplanes. How does that affect the Taos Air thing - having jets?" asked the Village of Taos Ski Valley mayor Christof Brownell.
A turboprop airplane has propeller engines, while a jet airplane has jet engines.
"That's one of the items earlier that we asked Senator (Bobby) Gonzales to look at, because the reality of it is, except for very short hops, like if we were flying to Santa Fe, the turboprops don't make economic sense," said Bellis, who has asked for the legislation to be amended to also allow for small jet airplanes.
"The smaller jets - 30 passengers or smaller - fit our market, particularly given the mountains and altitudes and the distances we have to cover," said Bellis.
"We will support that aviation bill," said Luis Reyes Jr., chief executive officer of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. "I think we need to do, collectively as a community, anything we can do to spur our economy. And if this is one of those pieces in the puzzle, I think as a community we have to support it."