Guam Lobbies for US Base to Close
Island officials want to use naval station to expand airport, but US Navy is unenthusiastic. 'AVIATION GHOST TOWN'
SYDNEY — FROM the air, Guam is shaped like a bow tie. The knot is the United States Naval Air Station, Agana. Now, many residents of Guam would like to untie the knot.In fact, on Sept. 1, when President Bush announces his final recommendation for base closures, Guam officials are likely to be the only ones to cheer if their base is on the list. "Guam is concerned about the economic constraint of keeping NAS Agana open," says Rep. Ben Blaz, the Republican delegate to Congress from Guam. Instead, Guam wants to use NAS Agana to expand its burgeoning airport and to build a road to help cut down on traffic. Guam feels it needs the extra space because it is quickly becoming a transportation, communication, and banking hub in the Pacific. Japanese tourists flock to Guam, the same way East Coast residents travel to Florida. This is putting pressure on airline services. There are currently 23 major flights per day with plans by most airlines to expand service. "If we don't get more space, we may have to move our maintenance operations to Saipan," says Art Day, who runs Continental Airlines/Air Micronesia's regi onal operations. The prospect of losing business has galvanized officials. However, despite the official enthusiasm for shutting the base, Mr. Blaz admits Guam is unlikely to be on the final hit list. "It's not like the others - closed to save money," he says. Instead, it will cost money because Guam's proposal is to shift NAS Agana to Andersen Air Force Base which is about 10 miles from NAS. How much money the shift would cost is the big question. Two years ago the US Navy estimated it would cost $458 million (US). Then last year Blaz asked the US General Accounting Office to estimate the cost. The GAO figured it would cost $229 million. The Navy came up with a new estimate of $289.4 million. The GAO figured moving the base would result in an annual operational savings of $7.7 million while the Navy figured it would save only $3.2 million. The equation would change if Guam agreed to contribute toward the transfer. In the past, Guam officials have said they want the transfer at no cost. However, in an interview, Gov. Joseph Ada concedes that Guam may have to pay some "reasonable" amount. But he believes the Navy has to take into consideration the expansion of the airport, which Guam is paying for. "If any national emergency occurs in the region, it's there for their use," he says. Blaz is more specific. He surmises that if the transfer cost comes down to $100 million, "it would not be inappropriate to split it - Guam would pay $50 million. Guam is putting its money where its mouth is." No one expects the negotiations or the move to be quick. Blaz estimates it could take up to 10 years to transfer NAS to Andersen. Governor Ada figures it will take one to two years to negotiate the move but less than a decade for the actual move. The Navy has not been enthusiastic about giving up the base. Rear Adm. James B. Perkins III, commander naval forces Marianas, has said the Navy has several major concerns: transferring the base must not degrade its mission or the quality of life for the sailors or their families. In addition, it must comply with federal environmental law and must not result in any expense to the Navy. There are two squadrons stationed at the base. One squadron of helicopters provides support for Navy ships anchored offshore. The second squadron is composed of long-range reconnaissance aircraft. "We need to maintain these capabilities on Guam because of its strategic location near primary sea and air lanes," Admiral Perkins has said. However, Ada refers to NAS as "an aviation ghost town" where the Navy has been reducing personnel every year. Blaz believes the Navy's mission can be accomplished from Andersen Air Force Base which he says is already underutilized. "Everyone else is consolidating with joint commands - it's more efficient and economical," says Blaz. Perkins was not available for comment for this story. There are also questions about how much it will actually cost to move the Navy. The GAO estimated new family housing and barracks would cost $130 million, or 56 percent, of the relocation cost. The Navy figures it will cost $157 million, or 54 percent of the cost. In either case, it is very expensive. For example, the Navy figures it will cost $102.9 million to build 488 units for family housing. This works out to $210,000 per unit, not including the cost of sewage and roads. "That's on the high side - t hat's about $200 per square foot," snaps Guam's governor. "The cost should be $80 to $100 per square foot," he adds. However, Peter Leon Guerrero, Guam's director, Bureau of Planning, says building on the island is expensive, especially with the strong economy. "Contractors can pick and choose what they do and if they do it they make a major profit," says Mr. Guerrero. Including the cost of roads and sewer hookups, he estimates it will cost the Navy $281,000 per unit - only $4,000 less than the Navy estimate. Recently the Navy has also raised the issue of cleaning up the base. After World War II, used oil and other toxic substances were dumped on NAS. The Navy will have to clean up its mess to avoid liability lawsuits. For many Guam residents, taking back the airfield has a nationalistic appeal. The original airfield was built by the Japanese during World War II with forced Guamanian labor. Among those laborers was Blaz. He notes the field is a source of pride among the residents. "NAS Agana is to Guam what the Alamo is to the state of Texas," says Blaz.