Debate on replacing state planes has cost millions, UDOT says

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Two passenger airplanes operated by the state of Utah in a Salt Lake City hanger on Jan. 31, 2019. At left is a King Air C90B and at right is a Super King Air B200.

It is said that time is money, and talk is cheap. Lawmakers lamented Thursday that they debated so long about whether to replace the two airplanes used to shuttle state officials around Utah that it has added millions to the cost — proving that too much talk can be expensive.

As they debated for more than a year about whether it would be wiser to use charter services or lease or buy new planes, the state’s two aging aircraft — ages 21 and 22 years old — kept deteriorating and losing resale value.

While the oldest was worth about $1 million at the beginning of the debate, now it is worth “nothing beyond the value of its parts,” said Jason Davis, deputy director of the Utah Department of Transportation.

That’s because of a recent critical wing flap failure that led to a close-call landing in Moab. With that on the plane’s permanent record, Davis said it now has virtually no trade-in value.

“So our failure and inability to act has cost us the trade-in value of that airplane,” said Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville.

Also, Davis said the other plane was worth $2 million to $3 million when debates began, and now is worth less and less amid continuing repairs and problems common for an older airplane.

“We beat this to death a couple of times” in long debate, said Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, who is a pilot.

He blamed himself for some of the admittedly too-long debate, saying he never bought a plane himself because it didn’t pencil out — and believed the state may be wise to avoid the expense of owning its own planes, too. He said studies ordered during the long debate proved that wrong, and the planes are used often and have been cost-effective.

At the beginning of debates about the state airplanes, Gov. Gary Herbert — who sometimes uses those to travel with visiting dignitaries — had requested $12.5 million to replace both, but that counted on receiving several million from the resale of current aircraft.

Amid stalling and opposition in the Legislature, Herbert changed tactics this year and asked in his current budget for just $6.8 million to replace the older, six-seat airplane and try to make do with the other eight-seater.

Ironically, that prompted Harper to suggest in a meeting Thursday that lawmakers look at replacing both airplanes — since they are essentially the same age — and see if buying two could somehow save money. UDOT officials said they will look into that and report back.

But UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras argued against another suggestion from legislative analysts that they should, perhaps, charge agencies using the aircraft enough to cover operational costs, plus an amount toward future replacement.

They said that would add $1,200 an hour to costs, which Braceras said would double rental rates. At that price, he said few agencies likely would opt to use the airplanes, and the state would lose the benefit they bring.

Davis notes that when the state originally bought the aircraft, it planned to replace them every 10 years. Had that happened as planned, he said the state would have avoided numerous expensive repairs — such as engine and propeller replacement — and received large amounts from resale and had more dependable aircraft.

Utah’s state planes carry about 1,100 passengers a year from many state divisions,

The most frequent flyers are the University of Utah and the Department of Health, which use them to provide medical help in rural areas, Davis said. The planes also assist in search-and-rescue operations, including transporting search dog teams.