Money well spent

The other side of the stimulus debate

October 1, 2009

Like many airports, Indianapolis Executive Airport in Zionsville, Indiana, had everything ready to go for a project that would improve airport safety and facilitate economic development in the area—everything except the funding.

After 35 or 40 years of use, the asphalt of Runway 18/36 had cracks that needed to be resealed every year and the FAA rated the surface as “fair,” said Dan Montgomery, president of Montgomery Aviation, an FBO at the airport. The condition of the runway put it on the list of projects in line for federal funding through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP), and the airport was ready with plans and blueprints, hoping to resurface the runway next summer.

The project got an early start this year thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The act, commonly known as the stimulus package, reserved $1.1 billion for airports, with an additional $200 million for air traffic control modernization. Indianapolis Executive submitted its shovel-ready project for funding under the act, and a grant for $4.3 million was released for the resurfacing.

The runway reopened to traffic on June 19 with a 10-inch-thick, grooved concrete surface, making it the first stimulus-funded airport project to be completed. The project was finished in 43 days, ahead of schedule, and more than a million dollars under budget.

At a time when families, municipalities, and states are cutting back on spending, airport sponsors and the states may not invest in the maintenance and improvements needed to keep airports safe and efficient. But a major portion of the funding for public-use airports comes from the federal government—most from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, funded by taxes on jet fuel and avgas. The funding recognizes the crucial role GA plays in the nation’s transportation infrastructure and supports improvements that ensure all Americans can continue to benefit from GA.

When the stimulus package was first proposed, AOPA worked to ensure that a portion of the money set aside for infrastructure improvements would go to aviation purposes. The association also encouraged the states to compile lists of general aviation airport projects to be funded, and as a result many grants went to smaller airports.

Money from the Recovery Act is meant to supplement investments from the AIP, which distributes grants each year for airport infrastructure projects. While AIP grants require a contribution from the state and local sponsor, stimulus funds require no local match. Montgomery said the stimulus funding saved Hamilton County, which owns Indianapolis Executive, $150,000 in matching funds.

The final price tag for the project—$3.2 million, Montgomery said—also saved the federal government money. Joel Szabat, deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy and co-chairman of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery team, reported in July that the FAA will be able to fund more airport projects than it initially expected because bids for projects funded by the Recovery Act have been below estimates.

Controversy: Bane or boon

In addition to helping airports stay safe and efficient, aviation infrastructure grants in the stimulus program are meant to create jobs and fuel local economies. At Indianapolis Executive, the runway resurfacing project put 70 people to work, Montgomery said. Workers stayed at local hotels and patronized local businesses, he added.

“Some of these guys, it was the first job they had since last year,” he said.

The airport celebrated the reopening of the runway with a ribbon cutting at the airport open house, a fundraising event to benefit the Indiana Down Syndrome Society; the airport invites members of the community to a charity fundraiser open house each year. This year, the event raised more than $11,000 for the charity, Montgomery said.

Indianapolis Executive, which provides access to the business corridor on the north side of Indianapolis, hosts a charter service, a Cessna Pilot Center, and an active flight school. Montgomery said the airport is many visitors’ first and last impression of the area and has a direct and indirect impact of tens of millions of dollars on the community.

“This airport is a gateway to the community,” Montgomery said.

But the public reaction to Indianapolis Executive’s new runway surface has not all been positive. Over the Fourth of July weekend, vandals spray-painted the message “$5 million Obama pork” on an airport sign Montgomery posted to let the community know about the asset it has in the airport.

The stimulus has been controversial since the $787 billion package was signed into law early this year; but Montgomery said the grant for Indianapolis Executive really helped out.

“I look at it this way: If [Indianapolis Executive Airport] didn’t get it, somebody else was going to get it,” he said. When applied to much-needed airport improvements, money from the Recovery Act can benefit the air transportation system and contribute to economic development and safety.

Serving communities across America

As airport safety and security officer for the State of Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Jeremy L. Worrall sees firsthand the condition of the airports that provide the only link from some Alaska communities to vital services. Worrall serves as manager of Fort Yukon Airport, which will receive a $15 million grant from the Recovery Act to resurface the apron, taxiway, and runway; correct drainage problems; and clear overgrown vegetation. According to the Alaska DOT statement of need, the existing runway is rutted, coarse, and soft in some areas.

“It’s falling apart,” Worrall said. “It’s lost all the material that’s holding the gravel together.” The Fort Yukon project “has been the biggest one on our list for a number of years now. Its surface has continued to deteriorate.”

In Alaska, airports allow delivery of mail, passengers, and medical supplies where roads can’t. With a 5,810-foot runway, Fort Yukon is larger than many airports in the region; it serves as a base for firefighting operations, provides regional airline service, and can accommodate freight aircraft as well as small GA aircraft.

“It’s a pretty important link in the chain out there,” Worrall said.

Critics of the use of stimulus funding for small airports, including CBS News, have argued that projects such as the ones at Fort Yukon and Indianapolis Executive should take a back seat to those at larger commercial service airports and hubs. Yet the FAA recognizes the importance of those links in the chain and has a system in place to ensure that as many Americans as possible have access to airports.

Recovery Act airport grants are distributed through the vetted process the FAA has in place to fund high-priority Airport Improvement Program projects each year. The three- to five-year process of identifying, planning, and prioritizing infrastructure development projects is designed to ensure that federal funds go to eligible, feasible, and warranted development.

In awarding grants, the FAA gives the highest priority to projects that enhance the safety and security of America’s airport system. Other goals include preserving and upgrading the existing airport system to allow for increased capacity and efficient use of existing capacity; improving the compatibility of airports with surrounding communities; and providing sufficient access to an airport for the majority of the American public. Because many communities do not have access to commercial service airports, GA airports play an important role in providing Americans with access to the nation’s air transportation system.

“The airlines are pulling out of a lot of these smaller airports,” Montgomery said. “How are people going to get into these outlying cities? By GA.”

E-mail the author at sarah.brown@aopa.org.