It’s been quite the battle — airlines and general aviation facing off over funding, with Congress long at a standstill. Meanwhile, airports have found themselves caught in the middle of the stalemate, making do for months on end with continuing resolutions and short-term appropriations bills. More than just a minor hassle, however, the price of the resulting delays add up quickly, leaving airports — and taxpayers — to foot the bill.
As of press time, a major hurdle in the Senate was finally cleared, with the Finance Committee again debating a more permanent reauthorization bill. An FAA spokesperson says it’s difficult to tell what effect a possible reauthorization bill would have on this year’s budget, but that the agency will be ready to roll whenever it does come through. [In April, FAA issued guidance on Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grant administration, good through June 30.]
Karla Price, project manager at RW Armstrong, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm, says larger commercial airports and small general aviation airports are mostly unaffected by the lack of funding.
“It was probably more the in-between airports that were impacted the worst,” she says.
Pensacola Regional Airport is one of those airports in between. Airport Director Frank Miller says that with funds released, the airport was able to move forward with a portion of an $8 million apron expansion, part of a $75 million airport capital development program.
“It’s basically caused us to take a step back and identify which part of the ramp had a priority over the other part,” Miller says. “Essentially that decision was, if we don’t do this portion, what impact does it have on our overall construction?”
Miller says he’s hoping money comes through in time to fund the second portion of the project, before the contractor has to leave the site. “Otherwise, he leaves the project and then if he has to come back he has to remobilize. So there are some additional costs that we would look at, if that contractor finished this first phase and left the airport and then had to come back.”
The Price of delays
Stephen Luebbert, airport director at Texarkana Regional-Webb Field Airport, says he also has had to split a current project in half, delaying completion by a year.
“In our case, we were building an emergency operations center, about a $5 million project,” says Luebbert.
“We were forced to take the project apart, and we had to do that in very short order — about 20 days to tear down a $5 million design and break it into two phases.”
Luebbert says it’s adding 12 percent to the overall cost of the project. “Anytime you take a project apart on short notice you make mistakes, you add cost, you expose yourself to more inflation down the road, and it’s just really a poor way to manage a public function.”
Luebbert says it’s smaller commercial airports like Texarkana that are being hit hardest. “We just don’t generate enough revenue to cover the capital cost,” he comments. “And the capital costs are escalating rapidly. There was a time when you paved with asphalt because concrete was too expensive. The price of oil has driven the cost of asphalt up to where it’s equal to concrete. Now we’re paving with concrete because it’s more durable and it’s not any more expensive than asphalt. But the cost of construction has gone up about 30 percent in the last four years. If you want to spend $10 million on a $7 million project, just wait another year.”
He also sees the delayed project as a possible infringement of safety. Included in the construction is a new ARFF station.
“Right now, our firefighters are at a non-optimum location on the airfield, living in an industrial hangar with a maintenance function. Their access to the airfield is blocked by taxiing aircraft and that sort of thing, so this delay in repositioning them in getting this facility constructed in a cost-effective fashion, it wastes money and it potentially costs lives.”
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The Bush budget plan fails to provide enough dollars to fund the industry's capital needs.
The Bush budget plan fails to provide enough dollars to fund the airports' capital needs.