For the first time in 10 years, Bowerman Airport in the Port of Grays Harbor announced that all of its 28 hangers are leased out. Many of the other 136 public airports around the state need infrastructure expansion or upgrades to accommodate growing demand but don’t have the money.
A bipartisan bill just approved by the legislature would change that with a low-interest loan program for the smaller airports, a move that proponents say will help maintain and improve the state’s local aviation facilities that are needed by both private owners as well as local businesses. Unlike a grant or a subsidy, taxpayers won’t be footing the bill permanently.
The bill, HB 1656, is the legislative response to a 2013 WSDOT study which found that 134 of Washington’s public airports will require $3.6 billion over the next 20 years. Ideally, the airports would be able to pay for their own projects, but for now that’s not the reality on the ground. Only Sea-Tac International and the Port of Shelton’s airports generate a profit.
Meanwhile, projects can attract new jobs and businesses. Recently, Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake built a hanger to accommodate Mitsubishi’s flight testing program for its regional jet (MRJ).
The legislation has the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) set up the loan program through the Community Aviation Revitalization Board established in the 2019-17 capital budget. The budget also includes $5 million in startup funds for the loan program.
WSDOT Aviation Director David Fleckenstein writes that “currently, grant opportunities for revenue producing projects through WSDOT Aviation Division and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) are very limited based on the need to maintain existing infrastructure.” The new program will “provide additional funding options to communities while assisting airports in becoming less dependent on future state and federal funding to maintain their infrastructure.”
Airports will be able to apply for up to $250,000 a year, per airport, but only airports with fewer than 50,000 annual commercial passengers are eligible for the program. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate on Mar. 2, after also receiving unanimous support in the House on Feb. 13. The bill’s prime sponsor is Rep. Tom Dent (R-13), with three Democrats and two Republicans cosponsoring.
In a Feb. 13 radio interview, Dent said that “we have grant programs for airports…but you can’t spend that money on everything.” WSDOT has a program that offers up to $750,000 in grants, but the projects have to be included in its State Capital Improvement Program.
Dent added that the idea behind the bill is for airports that “want to entice a new business to come in there and they need to put up a new hanger” to make it happen.
However, many of the actual projects don’t create a lot of jobs. That becomes tricky when trying to gauge their “economic development” benefit and can leave them grounded when trying to obtain a grant.
The new loan program is based on the belief that infrastructure encourages businesses to remain and even grow within the community, rather than shift operations to airports with larger capacity. That’s according to Chris Herman, legislative committee chair for the Washington State Aviation Alliance Board, a nonprofit that represents aviation and airport organizations in the state. He is also the senior transportation director with the Washington Public Ports Association.
He told Lens that although these small airports are often used by aviation enthusiasts, they’re also an alternative for businesses to transport cargo. “It’s because our state’s so large and only has so many commercial airports. That infrastructure often means the difference between a business remaining in their local community. It may not make sense for them to be in a small community if they don’t have access to an airfield. That’s a really big deal for different regions of our state.”
Herman added that “It’s not free money; it needs to be paid back, so that’s really the premise… To not just be given a handout or a state grant, but to really help them to build increasing infrastructure.”
The future of Washington’s skyward transportation system has drawn attention from lawmakers recently after WSDOT concluded Seatac’s cargo capacity will be full by 2034. A new study hopes to find alternative airports in Washington to shift some of that new freight. Although air cargo is a small industry compared to other modes of travel, it can serve as an effective backup when harsh weather prevents truckers from using the roads.
HB 1656 now awaits Governor Jay Inslee’s signature.