Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta visited Williston on Monday, hearing from state and local officials about challenges facing airports in western North Dakota.
U.S. senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven and Congressman Kevin Cramer made the case for federal assistance for infrastructure development at regional facilities including Sloulin Field International Airport.
“I didn’t bring my checkbook with me,” Huerta said before admitting officials presented a “compelling picture” of their needs.
The federal budget is $3.3 billion and since competition for its discretionary funding is tough, the state must prioritize its wanted projects, Huerta said. The FAA, however, is willing to partner with the state to mitigate its strained airports.
“We want to be your partner, and we want to work with you in the years ahead,” Huerta said.
Senators Heitkamp and Hoeven said the oil patch is a great regional hub and must improve its air services.
“Clearly the need in Williston is dramatic,” Hoeven said. “We need to get something going now.”
State officials said they were willing to help regional airports with matching funds.
“We’re going to make sure the state is making the investment to show North Dakota the state is doing our part,” said Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley. But with the projected federal, state and local funding, the state may fall short about $372 million in aviation needs through 2022.
Huerta listened to the pleas for federal funding, and to local officials, who told him Williston was the fastest-growing micropolitan area in the U.S.
“We need to have air service that’s second to none,” said Mayor Ward Koeser. If the federal, state and local governments work together “we all win in that situation.”
Sloulin Field was designed to serve 10,000 boardings per year as reflected in the size of its terminal, said Steven Kjergaard, the airport’s manager.
Passenger enplanements increased from 8,500 in 2007 to more than 186,000 in 2013. Boardings have steadily increased since 2005
The airport has eight flights per day with four to Minneapolis on Delta and four to Denver on United, Kjergaard said. Great Lakes pulled out of the airport in March.
The primary need for either expanding or relocating the airport is due to commercial traffic, which has limited space, Kjergaard said.
The airport can hold two more departures per day, but it’s nearly maxed out in capabilities.
Moreover, the airport’s runway is too small to hold incoming aircraft.
Though its published weight is 2,500 pounds, the city signed agreements with United and Delta for planes up to 5,300 pounds, said Anthony Dudas, the airport’s assistant manager. Williston and the Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport in Dickinson are the only two airports in the nation that have signed such agreements.
The airport was previously granted $700,000 in FAA funding to create a master plan determining a solution that would allow larger aircraft to fly in and out of Williston to satisfy demand for air service, according to the Williston Herald.
A study was led by the city along with the FAA, aeronautics commission and KJL, Inc. according to airport documents. The study determined two possible options — expand or relocate.
Relocation is estimated at $250 million and expansion at $350 million, Kjergaard has said.
Sloulin is now 10,000 square feet and is limited in parking, terminal and apron space, Kjergaard said. Williston plans to construct a new 71,300-square-foot airport northwest of the city in 2017.
“This is an extremely aggressive timeline,” Kjergaard said, especially since the average airport move takes an average of over a decade to complete.
Williston would seek to leverage off the sale of its existing facility, which Huerta thought was a solid step that showed a willingness to work with state and federal officials.
Senators and regional officials informed Huerta about challenges regarding regional airports as well.
“I would be shocked if there is any other state in the union that has the same challenges that the state of North Dakota has,” Heitkamp said.
The state has 89 public airports, 53 of which receive federal funding, said North Dakota Aeronautics Commission Director Kyle Wanner.
The state had anticipated hitting 1 million enplanements in two or three decades, but it surpassed its expectations when reaching that milestone in 2012, Wanner said.
“Air service across the state has never been better,” Wanner said, claiming the state had more flights, destinations and pilots since previous years. “We could grow faster if the infrastructure was there to accommodate these needs.”
Airport officials from Dickinson, Minot and Bismarck made presentations to Huerta, saying they plan for either expansion or constructing a new facility to meet future demands.
“It’s a very compelling story of need,” Huerta acknowledged, telling state and local officials they made it “clear” of their wants, and the FAA is willing to partner on projects once the state figures out its priorities.