By John Boyce, Contributing Editor
January/ February 2001
Tapping AIP dollars to keep up runways, ramps, taxiways
general aviation airport pavements has been something
of a headache over the years because many airports and
their state aviation departments couldn't afford to
do it. That could be changing if states decide to take
advantage of a change in Federal Aviation Administration
rules and use some of their Airport Improvement Program
(AIP) apportionment to do repair and maintenance on
GA runways, taxiways, and ramps.
Most of the nation's general aviation or non-primary airports' airside pavement was built in large part with federal money. That money brought with it a requirement that the airport maintain the pavement in good, safe condition throughout its projected life.
However, that requirement was not backed up with any financial assistance that would enable small airports to take care of wear and tear on pavement. In other words, the FAA would help build or rebuild a runway but it wouldn't, couldn't, help maintain it.
Consequently, GA airport managers, many with little or no operating budgets, tended to let their pavements deteriorate to the point that they could not be patched and repaired - they had to be rebuilt. As one aviation official summarized the situation, "Any airport manager with any brains (would tell you), the logical thing to do is not maintain your pavements and wait until they're falling apart and then get a huge grant to reconstruct."
The AIP, in its 50-year history, has strictly been a capital investment program and was never designed to be used in the operation and maintenance of airports.
However, the FAA recognized in the 1990s that if it allowed AIP money to be spent on maintenance, the pavement would last longer and the agency would save millions of dollars in the long term that it was spending on reconstruction.
1997 Pilot Program
With that in mind, the FAA gained authorization from Congress to implement a pilot program in 1997 to allow the use of AIP funds for pavement maintenance.
Over two years, nine projects or pilot grants in six states involving 52 airports were awarded.
The pilot program was judged a success and led directly to a change in AIP rules, as outlined in AIR-21 and as stated in the guidelines, "permitting AIP funds to be used for routine work to preserve/extend useful life of runways, taxiways, and aprons at non-primary airports."
Mark Beisse, an FAA airport program specialist, explains, "We felt that those nine projects showed that there was a need out there.''
And, he adds, "before we started this pilot we did some in-house calculations. I mean it became obvious that this makes sense. It is common sense. It isn't something that anybody is going to argue too much with until you get to the threshold of the larger airports. They can maintain the runways themselves."
NO NEW MONEY
Although the new rules on the use of AIP monies widens the scope of what eligible states can do with the money, one criticism of the program is that no new money becomes available specifically for pavement maintenance. The criteria for an AIP apportionment are unchanged: You get what you get regardless of maintenance at GA airports. Only state apportionment funds were used during the pilot program and only state apportionment funds can now be used for pavement maintenance - and then only if the airport sponsor is unable to fund maintenance.
The FAA guidelines letter says "The airport sponsor must be unable to fund maintenance under the grant assurances using its own resources.''
In other words, says Ann Crook, director of the Oregon Department of Aviation in Salem, "Pavement maintenance is just outright an eligible item now, but is that to say that pavement maintenance can be eligible as long as you've exhausted all of your other resources to do that? I think there is still some question locally about what that means."
According to observers of the industry, the key word is "locally"' The FAA's national guideline is a hard and fast standard, but how the regional FAA officials interpret it can vary from region to region.
Of course, if pavement maintenance is a high priority item, then the state will choose to apportion AIP money to it. If, however, capital improvements - "real work," in the words of one aviation executive - are deemed of utmost importance, maintenance could be put aside.
New Hampshire, one of the states involved in the pilot program, has chosen to continue with the program of using AIP funds to do pavement maintenance at the eight NPIAS (National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems) airports in the state.
"Where our state is right now," says Tricia Schoeneck, senior aviation planner at the New Hampshire division of aeronautics, "is that we have gone back to those eight airports and we're reevaluating the pavements and we're planning to continue with the program... We're using AIP money for that. We set aside some funds each year. We won't be able to go back and do every surface on the airport but we'll go back and do it on a priority basis, starting with runways and working down.
"We've made the decision that this is important enough to apportion money to it. The goal is that over time we will spend less money down the road." In the extreme climate of New Hampshire, Schoeneck continues, the state feels that taking care of pavements is one of the most important things it can spend AIP money on.
Many states have developed their own programs for taking care of pavement maintenance at their general aviation airports. Nebraska, for instance, uses a state fuel tax to purchase its own equipment and materials and dedicates two state employees to maintaining GA airport pavements.
"We buy the materials through our department of roads, which buys in vast quantities" says Diane Hofer, airport engineer at Nebraska's Department of Aeronautics. "If an airport wants to do something they send us a letter, we send our state employees out with the equipment, and they do it for a fixed cost per linear foot. Our costs are considerably cheaper than a contractor."
Hofer goes on to say that Nebraska eschews the use of AIP funds because they force the state "to pay Davis-Bacon wage rates, which is the prevailing union wage rate, so that can add to your cost. And if your grant is over a quarter of a million dollars you have to have a certain amount contracted to minority business. That can add to your costs."
Georgia is a state that has its own limited program but is planning to use some AIP funds to do pavement work at some of its 81 eligible general aviation airports.
The Georgia Department of Transportation's Aviation Programs Office (APO) in Atlanta recently completed an FAA-grant funded study of its GA pavements. It came to the conclusion that in its current condition Georgia needed an annual budget of $7 million just to do pavement maintenance. At the time of the study, the total annual aviation budget, exclusive of Atlanta Hartsfield Internation-al, was $2.2 million.
Because aviation officials used the study as a public relations tool to educate officials around the state to the serious condition of general aviation airports, the budget, which comes from the state's general fund, has risen to $3.8 million, approximately 80 percent of which will be spent on pavement maintenance. One State's Initiative - Oregon
The State of Oregon has its own pavement maintenance program that is funded with avgas and jet fuel taxes. However, it will be getting AIP money under the new GA entitlement program authorized under AIR-21.
Crook, the state's aviation director, devised
a plan whereby she could apply for one grant that
would cover AIP-funded projects at 10 airports.
"With the new (GA entitlement) program," Crook says, "there are twice as many airports eligible to get grants than typical and the FAA didn't know how they were going to administer the grants. I went to them and I said how about you issue the state of Oregon one grant for projects at several airports and we'll administer it from there? It's walking a fine line because we're not a block grant state and we're prohibited by statute from being a block grant state, but the FAA was willing to enter into that agreement with us.
"We are administering one grant that covers projects at ten airports. That wasn't specifically for maintenance, it was for a bunch of stuff; it's whatever airports could come up with to spend this new entitlement money."
Because of that, she sees an opportunity for airports to band together to get AIP money for pavement maintenance despite the fact that she was turned down on that particular proposal herself.
"We had asked if we could lump several airports together to do maintenance and were flat out told no," she says. "But the rules are changing with this entitlement program. It's meaning so many grants that people just can't keep up. So maybe we have an opportunity that people can take advantage of."
Mark Beisse, an airport program specialist at FAA, says state aviation agencies can sponsor multiple airport pavement maintenance projects within one grant, or a single owner of several airports can do the same thing. He suggests that airports look to the states for assistance.