The Pierre City Commission on Tuesday approved, by a vote of 5-0, a “task order” for the Pierre Regional Airport to begin this year up to $190,000 of engineering and design work on a planned Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) building to be constructed in 2017.
Mike Isaacs, airport manager, assured the Commission it’s not a dog of a deal.
He told the Commission that 90 percent of the cost of this year’s preparatory work would be paid by a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and 5 percent from state funds, so the city would pay 5 percent.
Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson, more recently known as KLJ, is a multi-state engineering firm started in Dickinson, North Dakota, in 1938, that will manage the prep work out of its Rapid City office, with local Brosz Engineering doing the architectural work.
“The project will probably be designed and well underway this summer but the actual construction will take place next year,” Isaacs said.
That much larger amount, too, is slated to be paid for mostly by the feds.
The construction of the proposed new building is part of the airport’s master plan, Isaacs said.
It’s important to move on this, Commissioner Jamie Huizenga said, because it is federal grant money that is “discretionary,” meaning it’s not “entitlement” funding that has more long-term stability.
“We need to run with this when the opportunity presents itself,” Huizenga said. “We cannot let it slip away.”
Isaacs said he’s received – “verbally” – assurances from federal aviation officials that the airport will receive additional federal discretionary funding.
That’s important, because the airport learned earlier this year it has failed to obtain a waiver from the FAA of a key entitlement funding threshold for small airports, which requires at least 10,000 passenger boardings per year.
The last two years, for the first time in decades, the airport fell under 10,000, including only 6,574 in 2015. And this year started out even more poorly with only 312 boardings in January, the lowest monthly total in decades.
That means the airport will lose $850,000, or 85 percent, of its previous $1 million small airport entitlement funding, Isaacs said. However, the FAA has other revenue streams, including discretionary grants that Pierre’s airport can obtain with some degree of confidence, especially in light of the current fix it’s in, he said.
The passenger-numbers threshold is waiving in the case of “short-term” problems in keeping the numbers over 10,000, Isaacs said. And the FAA, interestingly, ruled that the sudden pilot shortage of the past 18 months is not a short-term factor, according to Isaacs.
Mayor Laurie Gill said Tuesday that at a recent meeting in Washington, she talked to Sen. John Thune, R-SD, about the need to maintain funding for airports such as Pierre’s.
As chairman of the Senate’s commerce committee, Thune is leading the Senate’s writing of the re-authorization funding bill for the FAA and says he’s included a provision to use 2012 passenger boarding numbers to trigger the airport subsidy levels for 2016 and 2017. In 2012, Pierre’s airport had 11,565 boardings, according to its own count, Gill said. (FAA’s passenger numbers can vary slightly from the airport’s own counts.)
Gill and Isaacs said that is important, not just for the “short-term relief,” in funding for the airport, but in it being a recognition Congress is beginning to realize it created the problem by its new pilot training rules effective in 2014 that led to the current shortage of pilots.
Isaacs said a related and important provision in the FAA reauthorization bill Thune introduced and is shepherding in the Senate would form a “working group” to re-examine the issue of pilot training and how to find ways to relieve the current shortage of pilots with enough hours under the new regimen.
In the meantime Great Lakes Airlines continues to fly from Pierre to Denver and Minneapolis. It also has indicated it will submit a bid to DOT for providing air service under the EAS program, Isaacs said. ADI, the budding air carrier city leaders recommended to the DOT in late 2014 also has indicated it will submit a bid, Isaacs said.
There is a lot of bipartisan support for the airport funding dilemma for small airports as well as the pilot shortage crisis, Thune and others have told her, Gill said. But other issues, including an effort in the U.S. House to privatize air traffic control, isn’t in the Senate version of the bill, so it’s taking a while. In the meantime, the House passed a temporary authorization of the FAA on Monday, putting that bill on President Obama’s desk as a stopgap measure.
Within a week, the month-long period for airlines to submit bids to provide service to Pierre under the Essential Air Service program that can provide millions of dollars a year in per-passenger subsidies to small, isolated airports will hit its March 29 deadline, Isaacs said. The city’s task force will then have a month to consider the bids and make a recommendation to the federal Department of Transportation.