New runway for aviation loan program

New runway for aviation loan program
House legislators have introduced HB 1456 creating a revolving aviation loan program for small airports after a previous proposal was vetoed last year by Governor Jay Inslee. Photo: Jelson25

The state legislature last year overwhelmingly voted in favor of HB 1656 creating an aviation loan program to help smaller airports with infrastructure investment projects. However, the bill was vetoed by Governor Jay Inslee, and now supporters are back with a revised proposal.

The importance of the revolving loan program outlined in HB 1456 was emphasized by local government officials and aviation educators at a Feb. 7 public hearing of the House Transportation Committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) and cosponsored by seven Republicans and seven Democrats, the bill would have the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) create the Community Aviation Revitalization Board, which would use funds from a new treasury account to offer low-interest loans. It’s a similar approach to how many local transportation infrastructure projects are funded via the Public Works Board.

Among other things, the board would determine the loan interest rates and conditions. The timeline for a loan repayment could not be longer than 20 years. According to Dent, the bill’s predecessor, HB 1656, was vetoed over issues with how the board was set up. Although the bill didn’t become law, the legislature still appropriated $5 million in the 2017-2019 capital budget to WSDOT for the loans.

“This is really a rural economic development project or bill,” Washington Public Ports Association Senior Director of Transportation Chris Herman told lawmakers. Washington’s public ports manage and operate 35 of the 135 public airports in Washington, including Sea-Tac International.

Herman added that “many of these airports are the life blood of the business community within their communities, and it’s very vital for those airports to be able to maintain the service level for those businesses.”

Providing much of the lift for the bill are the findings of a 2013 WSDOT study which concluded that Washington’s public airports need $3.6 billion over the next 20 years. Although those airports are eligible for grant money from the state, and 64 percent of them can apply for federal grant funding, they still struggle to find the funds necessary to improve their infrastructure. One contributing factor is that state and federal grants only apply to runways and taxiways. Another challenge is that currently only Sea-Tac and the Port of Shelton’s airports generate a profit.

John Dobson with the Washington State Aviation Alliance served as the executive director for the Port of Shelton from 2009-2016. He told committee members the number one lesson learned while in that position is that “airports must do a better job of becoming financially independent. They need multiple sources of revenue, they need opportunities for industrial development, both aeronautical and non-aeronautical.”

However, he said that restrictions on state and federal grant funding make it hard for them to make the necessary improvements.

HB 1456 “has the ability to become a true paradigm shift in the way we view our airports,” he added. “This bill is so much more than just funding. The bill is about helping our local communities, it’s about increasing utilization of underused assets, it’s about teaching our rural airport owners to become self-sufficient.”

Those loans also could aid Central Washington’s aviation program, the only four-year program on the West Coast, as it looks to expand in response to a growing pilot shortage. Currently, the program operates out of the Bowers Airport in Ellensburg but is “deteriorating due to a lack of funding,” according to Central Washington University Director of Government Relations Steve DuPont. “We believe this (bill)…could provide very much needed revenue to support that airport along with other small airports.”

In agreement was Kittitas County Commissioner Bill Clark, who told legislators “the county would like to see Central’s program continue to expand, and expand in Ellensburg, which we believe is the ideal location.”

He added that the bill would allow counties to use loans for matching funds with federal money that they’re seeking. “We’d like to be able to get some state funds to match and an even greater amount of federal funds to bring Bowers Field up to the standard that Central wants it to be.”

No further action is scheduled for HB 1456.

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