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By Lindablue F. Romero

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (September 24, 1999)---The planned expansion of West Tinian Airport moved a step closer to implementation yesterday, after the U.S. Navy and the CNMI government signed an agreement formally turning over some 1,500 acres of land in the island municipality of Tinian.

In exchange for the return of the land, the Commonwealth Ports Authority (CPA) has agreed to grant the U.S. military the use of the airport as well as landing rights.

"This is the kicker that will get the project to move forward, because it satisfies the grant condition to build a new runway," said Carlos H. Salas, Executive Director of the Commonwealth Ports Authority after a simple turnover ceremony.

Rear Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, Chief of the Pacific Command, signed the agreement on behalf of the U.S. military. Board of Public Lands Chairman Manny P. Villagomez also signed the document transferring the title of the property to CPA.

Beset with declining revenue brought about by Asia's financial crisis, the ports authority had difficulty raising the needed amount to carry out the $20 million airport improvement project.

The previous administration had considered floating some $140 million worth of bonds to finance the modernization of West Tinian Airport and complete the $43 million Saipan Harbor improvement project.

However, the ports authority eventually backed out after an analysis of its financial situation showed that it will not be able to service a huge debt.

The ports authority turned to the Federal Aviation Administration for financial assistance that, for the first time, granted $9 million in less than 12 months.

"It clearly shows their support for the project. Without them, we would not have been able to get this far," said Salas.

Earlier, some $3.4 million had been set aside by the Tinian Legislative Delegation from its CIP funds for this project, bringing to $12.8 million the total amount of money available for the project.

CPA is finalizing the bid documents for the new runway project on Tinian. An invitation to bid for the contractors and financiers will be published in December for the construction of the new runway, crossover taxiways and the relocation of 8th Avenue. It is expected to be completed in approximately 24 months.

The new runway, which will measure 7,800 linear feet long, will allow all wide body commercial aircraft to land except the B-747.

Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio hailed the turnover, saying it signals the improvement of the airport, which has long been awaited by the people. "I am very happy because we can now go on with the airport expansion project, which will boost the tourism industry," he said.

Tinian Mayor Francisco Borja said he is confident that the ports authority will still be able to raise the remaining amount, with the help of FAA, to complete the airport construction project.

An economic and transportation task force has been created by the Tinian Mayor to encourage more businessmen to invest in the island and airlines to provide nonstop service to Tinian from various Asian countries.

The financially beleaguered Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino has partly blamed the failure of the CNMI government to keep its commitment to improve the West Tinian Airport for poor tourist arrivals at the casino resort complex.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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