FAA: Funding for airport expansion less than expected
The city of Blaine has plans to proceed with a $16 million airport expansion project but finding the funding for that project may be less certain than once thought.
During a conference call meeting last Tuesday, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials told city council members – Bruce Wolf, John Liebert, Bonnie Onyon, Ken Ely – that the city can expect at least $150,000 from the FAA’s non-primary entitlement grant program, which guarantees federal funds to small airports throughout the country. Receiving more than $1 million per year from combined state and federal sources, however, would be unlikely.
City officials had expected to receive at least $2 million per year for several years from the FAA office to finish the project by 2020, according to the airport master plan completed earlier this year.
“We were hoping we could get up to $2 million per year out of the state allotment but now it appears that’s not possible,” said Doug Fenton, chair of the Blaine Airport Commission. “We were hoping to have the major part of the construction done within the first six or seven years, now that’s going to stretch out even longer.”
Wayde Bryant, manager of the FAA’s district office in Seattle, said out of the $6 million in annual funding allotted by Congress for non-primary entitlement grants, the maximum funding available per airport is approximately $150,000.
“We give about $6 million per year and we’ve got about 40 airports that are vying to get that money,” he said. “The small airports get $150,000 maximum per year in non-primary entitlement grants but that’s the money that’s more or less guaranteed.”
Bryant, however, added that the Blaine municipal airport has accumulated $450,000 over the past three years that can be used for airport improvements. In addition, Bryant said projects involving runway improvements are given the highest priority for primary entitlements, which are available to all state airports regardless of size.
“Runways come first,” he said. “If your runway’s falling apart, that’s your first priority of work. Taxiways are next and then if there’s money left, we can get into land acquisition.”
Council member Bonnie Onyon asked how likely it would be that Blaine would receive $16 million.
Bryant said while the FAA would work with the city as much as possible, $16 million in six years was highly unlikely.
“We can certainly work with you to get as much money as we can as quick as we can but it’s not reasonable to expect in six years that you will get $16 million,” he said. “As much as we would like to have the money and make it available and improve the airport, the federal money isn’t there.”
In addition, Mary Vargas, project manager for the state FAA office, said the agency is unlikely to pay for all of the projects associated with master plan such as the extension of Boblett Street.
“In our conversations about a runway shift, Blaine would have to come forward and support more than the 5 percent share of the cost, and in the case of Boblett, it may be 100 percent,” she said.
When asked by council member John Liebert if using the FAA’s grant money would obligate the city “forever,” Bryant said it would depend on how the money was used.
If the money is used for capital improvements, he said, this would require the city of Blaine to keep the airport open to the public on a semi-regional basis for the next 20 years. If the city uses the money to acquire land, the obligation would extend for as long as the property is used as an airport.
Doug Fenton said he remained optimistic and that he thinks the city can recoup much of those funds through borrowing unused non-primary entitlements from other Washington airports that don’t have immediate capital improvement plans. This would also prevent those airports from losing that funding while helping the state to receive the same amounts from Congress in subsequent years, he said.
“So it’s a win-win situation,” Fenton said, adding that he thinks Blaine can still complete the first and second phases of the project by 2020. “For a project of that magnitude, 10 years is not really that long. Even if we had the $16 or $15 million on the table right now, it would probably take us seven or eight years to finish it because of the necessary permitting processes so it’s really not that huge a setback.”
John Sibold, director of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s aviation division (DOT), said funding from the DOT’s Airport Aid Program would also likely be available for Blaine.
Sibold said because the DOT predicts as the nearby Bellingham International Airport continues to expand, this will exacerbate an already pent-up demand for hangar space in Whatcom County, according to the first phase of a long-term air transportation study, recently conducted to assess air travel facilities in Washington.
“One of the key findings we found is that we have a lot of constraints to airport hangars and storage and we know that Whatcom County is one of the areas that are challenged,” he said. “There are a lot of uncertainties, but what we do know now is that in Bellingham we have a long waiting list for hangar storage. So there’s a pretty strong likelihood there’s a shortage of storage capacity in Whatcom County, and if we take Blaine airport out, there will be even less resources.
“But the bottom line is that if Blaine decides to keep the airport, we’re here to help them.”