WILLISTON, N.D. – Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta didn’t bring his checkbook to western North Dakota on Monday, but he pledged to partner with the state to address the challenges of rapid growth.
Huerta toured Williston’s airport, which saw a nearly 152 percent increase in commercial boardings in 2013 alone and has maxed out its facilities to keep up with the growth spurred by oil development.
“The FAA can’t respond as quickly as we’ve grown,” said Steven Kjergaard, manager of Williston’s Sloulin Field International Airport.
Huerta, along with North Dakota’s congressional delegation, also heard from airport administrators in Dickinson, Minot and Bismarck, which are also experiencing spikes in boarding numbers and strains on facilities.
“It’s not just one community, it’s really half a state,” said Andy Solsvig, director of the Minot International Airport.
North Dakota is breaking aviation records each year, from the number of gallons of fuel sold to the number of pilots licensed in the state, said Kyle Wanner, interim director of North Dakota Aeronautics Commission.
“We’ve never had more destinations available to the public and we’ve never had more flights per day,” Wanner said. “We could grow faster if the infrastructure was there to accommodate these needs.”
A study identified $857.2 million in aviation needs for North Dakota through 2022, with 62 percent of those capital needs coming from in oil-impacted communities, Wanner said.
Wanner estimates that after anticipated federal, state and local funding sources are applied, the state would still have a shortfall of $372.2 million in aviation needs through 2022.
The needs include:
• Williston city officials support relocating the airport and constructing a new facility to accommodate the increased traffic and larger jets. An option of expanding at the current location is also being studied.
• Dickinson’s Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport needs a new runway to handle larger aircraft and a new terminal to accommodate more passengers.
• Minot’s airport has an expansion project underway, but still needs additional funding.
• In Bismarck, the airport’s runway needs reconstruction due to its age and increased use.
The officials emphasized that the western North Dakota cities are among the fastest-growing in the nation.
“We need an airport that’s going to continue to grow with the population and meet the needs of southwest North Dakota,” said Matthew Remynse, manager of the Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport in Dickinson.
Huerta said the representatives conveyed a “compelling picture” of the state’s needs. But the FAA’s budget is $3.3 billion, and competition for the discretionary funding is strong due to a backlog of projects, he said.
Huerta said North Dakota will need to prioritize the projects.
“I can’t fathom that we could do all of these things at once,” Huerta said.
Sen Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said safety challenges at North Dakota’s airports will become more serious as more pressure is put on the airports.
“I think North Dakota has to make a pretty persuasive argument to be at the top of the list as it relates to safety,” Heitkamp said.
During the tour of the Williston airport, Kjergaard showed officials the terminal that was designed for about 10,000 per year. Today, the airport sees about that much commercial traffic in one month.
“Clearly the need here in Williston is dramatic,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “We need to do something and we need to get going now.”