Long lines of vehicles waiting to get into the Arizona Air National Guard base at Tucson International Airport on some weekends is more than just a routine traffic jam.
The traffic issue highlights what has become a dispute between the Guard, which trains F-16 pilots, and the Tucson International Airport Authority over access to the facility, which has one permanent entrance on East Valencia Road.
The problem revolves around the lack of a second — or completely relocated — permanent entrance for 162nd Wing personnel off South Park Avenue south of Valencia, something the Guard has wanted for years.
The Guard has offered to pay for all the necessary improvements on land owned or otherwise leased by the Airport Authority for a formal second entrance.
Moving the main entrance to Park Avenue would help meet new security guidelines outlined by the Department of Defense as well as solve a more public problem like traffic congestion on heavily traveled Valencia.
It has been a problem for decades, says County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
“It should have been done years ago,” he said. County leaders in July passed a resolution that called on the city and airport to approve a new, relocated main gate for the Guard on Park Avenue.
A former member of the Guard in the 1970s, Huckelberry said traffic on Valencia backed up on drill weekends when he was serving.
Last Saturday about 1,900 Guard members headed to the facility before dawn as part of their weekend of drills. The Guard facility occupies about 90 acres of land next to the airport.
Huckelberry is concerned that without a secure new entrance, the Guard could struggle to bring in critical new missions in the coming years.
The Guard is a major employer in the county. A 2008 study suggests the Guard facility brings roughly $280 million into the Tucson economy annually. The 162nd Wing is one of the largest Air National Guard wings in the country.
“Unless they secure a second entrance on Park, which really should be their main entrance, they can’t guarantee that the unit will receive new missions,” he said.
The issue has been complicated by a decision by airport authorities to lock a gate at a secondary entrance on Park Avenue last month, as well as move construction equipment and material into the area of that entrance preventing access.
Gate No. 39 has been used by the Guard for more than two decades, explains Robert Medler, the president of the 162nd Air Guardians. The group advocates for the 162nd Wing on local and national issues.
“The backup along Valencia posed a safety hazard,” Medler said, with many Guard members choosing to use the Park Avenue gate for easier access.
That was until October’s drill weekend, when personnel found the gate closed and the locks changed without notice.
Bonnie Allin, president and CEO of the Airport Authority, confirmed Friday that the gate was recently closed, but the airport is offering alternate access for the Guard at another entrance, which is also on Park.
She said recent runway improvements have required contractors to store construction material and equipment in the area of the Park gate that the Guard used as a secondary entrance.
Medler was skeptical, saying the airport could have picked another place to store material and equipment, even on a temporary basis. “Did it necessitate that the gate be closed and the tailings stacked right there? he asked.
As for the alternate access along Park, Medler said the Guard was approached about possibly using it — but time and money are needed to make the necessary surface improvements to use it for access.
The current Guard entrance off Valencia, Medler notes, has to allow large commercial vehicles past the security checkpoint so that they don’t disrupt the flow of traffic. Only once the commercial vehicle is past the security station can it be inspected by Guard personnel.
He called that a security concern.
On Friday, Allin said the Airport Authority remains committed to working with the Guard on a long-term solution to the gate issue.
The TIAA board met in executive session Wednesday and discussed the Guard issue but did not take any action, which would have had to occur in open session. Several board members would not comment after the meeting.
Lt. Lacey Roberts with the Arizona Air National Guard declined an interview request on the issue.
Ownership of various parcels near the Park Avenue gate means the issue isn’t solely between the Guard and the Airport Authority.
The city of Tucson owns a small strip of land between Park and land owned by the airport, right where the Guard would like to establish a permanent entrance.
City Manager Mike Ortega confirmed the city does lease the land to the Airport Authority.
He said he is aware there has been an issue about access for the Guard for some time, and is hopeful a resolution can be reached.
However, he said, if the airport and Guard continue to have issues, he could have the Tucson City Council re-examine the lease. Action by the council could potentially require the airport give access to the Guard.