Central Oregon Airports Look for Lift from State
December 7, 2015
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  • Local government and private businesses have asked the state for $90 million that would pay for airport improvements, transit, trails and high-speed rail projects.

    The state only has half that amount to dish out under the $45 million ConnectOregon program that was set up to support the state’s nonhighway infrastructure, what are known as multimodal projects that range from aviation to rail to bike and pedestrian projects.

     In Central Oregon, the money would mean more support for four of the region’s six airports, which are looking to expand after lagging through the recession. The airports in Bend, Sunriver, Sisters and Prineville each requested money they say would help attract tourists to the area and improve safety as air traffic increases.

    “Our traffic count went from approximately 98,000 a year to almost 140,000. A big share of that was helicopters, but the fixed-wing has increased also. We don’t really see that tapering off,” Gary Judd, manager of the Bend Municipal Airport, said last week.

     The Bend airport has asked for $1.1 million to spur the separation of its fixed-wing and helicopter operations. The project would be matched by grants from the Federal Aviation Administration, with an overall cost of nearly $4.9 million.

     The Oregon Legislature last session failed to approve a major transportation funding package. But in its waning days, it approved the $45 million ConnectOregon package, the sixth of its kind.

     The program uses funds from the state’s lottery toward any project that creates jobs and improves nonhighway infrastructure, including marine, aviation, rail, transit and bike and pedestrian projects.

     The grants are approved through the Oregon Department of Transportation, which received 78 applications by the Nov. 20 deadline.

     “They call it ConnectOregon for a reason,” said Dave Campbell, head of operations at the Sisters Eagle Airport. “It’s to connect cities and infrastructures together, and connect those infrastructures to jobs.”

     The airport in Sisters is privately owned by Benny and Julie Benson, who also own the biofuel company Energyneering Solutions Inc., a company based at the airport.

     The airport owners are looking for $455,000 to put a seal coat on its new taxiway it built last year, for a GPS approach and to install a self-serve fuel tank. The airport built the taxiway to deal with increased demand and to improve safety, Campbell said.

    Before that was built, pilots “landed on the runway and turned around and came back,” Campbell said.

     In the airport’s application, Campbell wrote that the money would help the airport meet increasing demand from charter, touring and recreational pilots. He said he expects the airport would create 60 to 70 jobs if it can meet the increased demand.

     “Including the initial purchase, we’ve probably spent $4 million on this airport,” Campbell said. “We received no federal, state or municipal funds. ConnectOregon is a grant from the Oregon lottery administered by the state, but that’s not tax dollars.”

     In Prineville, city officials are hoping a $2 million grant would help the city consolidate and separate firefighting facilities from its flight academy and public flight areas at the Prineville Airport. The city cited the expansion of Facebook and Apple for its request.

     “The region has seen significant growth in recent years with many large companies such as Facebook and Apple building facilities in the area,” the city wrote in its request. “The airport has also been impacted by this growth in the past five years.”

     The airport’s daily operations have doubled, and it is nearly out of space to store aircraft, the city wrote.

     The Sunriver Airport is asking for $1.9 million to help pay for a $2.7 million reconstructed taxiway, aircraft parking and runway paint. It’s also asking for just over $592,000 for a weather observation system in a separate request.

    “The taxiway is in very poor condition,” Sunriver Resort’s airport manager, Stephanie Hartung, wrote in the application. “The airport owners are now prepared to reconstruct the taxiway and apron and maintain the runway so that air travelers can continue to be confident about the facility and be able to use the airport as in the past.”

     Local towns asked for money for projects focused on bicycling and pedestrians, as well.

     Redmond has requested $467,000 to pave a 2.3-mile section of its 5.3-mile trail through town for bikes and pedestrians. Sisters asked for about $115,000 for a half-mile gravel path running from U.S. Highway 20 to the Sisters Airport.