Despite Mesaba's Woes, Regional Airports Planning for Growth

The growth appears to be robust enough to overcome worries about recent short-term reductions in passenger traffic that have occurred because of Eagan-based Mesaba's financial troubles.

Towle said the state funds have been used primarily in the past to supplement federal grant dollars and don't "make or break" large-scale projects. Much of the money is also routed to smaller non-commercial airports that don't qualify for federal funding.

The funding removal, however, was apparently enough for airports to defer a number of maintenance projects, such as interior remodeling and facilities replacements.

"We all benefit from it, even if the larger airports don't get a large amount of that money," Van Leeuwen said.

A number of those smaller projects are likely to be revived once the state's $15 million contribution returns.

But some airport officials said they aren't yet getting their hopes up.

"We've thought of a whole bunch of things we'd like to do with that money, but we don't want to assume it'll be there, so we're going to wait and see," said Susan Baratono, an administrative assistant at Falls International Airport.

Raymond Rought, director of the Office of Aeronautics within the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said he's hopeful the funds will come through, and he's told regional airports to have their project needs prepared in time to make official requests.

"We've told [airport officials] we anticipate we will have additional state dollars for construction in '08 and '09," Rought said.

Already, small non-commercial airports in communities such as Jackson, Willmar and Fergus Falls are assessing potential terminal expansions, and more municipal airports are drafting new five- and 10-year growth plans.

Van Leeuwen said he expects a number of regional airports to grow in importance in the coming years, as major international airports like O'Hare and Los Angeles International Airport begin to near maximum flight capacity and travel hubs become increasingly decentralized.

The trend is also likely to be fueled by changes at major airlines.

Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines, for instance, has expressed a desire to focus more on Midwest travel as it seeks to move out of bankruptcy. But in the short run, state airport projects will likely increase as funding becomes available and business growth puts pressure on airports to keep up with demand.

"We certainly want to keep our aviation system top notch," Rought said.

This article previously appeared in Finance and Commerce, Minneapolis, another Dolan Media publication.

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