Commission may push for small airport loan extension

Commission may push for small airport loan extension
The state Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission may request more time to develop a plan addressing freight capacity needs, while advocating also that a low-interest revolving loan program for small airports be extended. Photo: freepik.com

The state Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) created by the state legislature in 2019 is tasked with developing a plan to meet Washington’s freight capacity needs that includes identifying suitable places for a future international airport. The commission may request a two-year extension on that plan in order to further examine the options available.

In the meantime, CACC is likely to recommend that the state legislature extend a low-interest revolving loan program for small airports that is set to expire next year, to help meet near-term freight capacity needs.

CACC was created following a 2018 report from the Joint Transportation Committee that found air cargo tonnage in the state will grow at a 4.4 percent annual rate through 2045, while the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) concluded Sea-Tac will reach full capacity by 2036. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is currently conducting a regional aviation baseline study that estimates passenger boardings within the region will grow from 24 million in 2018 to almost 50 million by 2050.

CACC is expected to offer six potential new airport locations to the legislature this January, with a single site selected by 2021. Potential site recommendations are primarily within Western Washington, while at one meeting the commission examined whether Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) could be relocated to accommodate a new airport.

Regardless, a presentation to the commission at its Oct. 21 meeting detailed the extensive planning process involved in building or expanding an airport as well as qualifying for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding. Additionally, new airport construction will undoubtedly  generate discussion about noise impacts, increased road congestion, and other environmental factors.

A majority of commission members earlier this year expressed support for a future large airport while using existing airports to meet short-term capacity. CACC member Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33) told colleagues at the Oct. 21 meeting that “if we limit ourselves to the near-term-only view, I think we’re missing what we really have to do, which is deal with the 20-30 year future.”

FAA officials told the commission at the Oct. 21 meeting that while it could potentially expand several existing airports, it would be easier to build a single new site.

In addition to a two-year extension on its plan deadline, the commission many also request permission to explore the possibility of increased air cargo capacity at Boeing Field; the commission is prohibited from making any recommendations within King County.

CACC member and PSRC Executive Director Josh Brown told colleagues that “one of the things we need to flesh out…is what is that next phase of planning? What does it look like?”

He added that to gain support for a deadline extension “we need to help policymakers and the public connect the dots on what that (new airport process) might look like.”

To help meet near-term needs, the commission may also recommend extending legislative funding for the Community Aviation Revitalization Board (CARB) Loan Program. Under the program, airports with fewer than 75,000 commercial takeoffs or flights can receive a 20-year loan of up to $750,000 at a two percent interest rate to cover repair, maintenance, and expansion projects such as hangars, parking facilities, and business park developments. A 2013 WSDOT study found that 134 airports will require $3.6 billion over the next 20 years.

Although the legislature approved $5 million in capital funding for the program, a separate bill that would have made CARB permanent was vetoed by Governor Jay Inslee. Recent legislative efforts to codify CARB have also been unsuccessful, and the loan program is set to expire in 2021.

WSDOT Aviation Director and CACC Chair David Fleckenstein told the commission that recommending the loan program extension is “an easy one…this is a successful program, and keeping it in place helps us address general aviation capacity and demand.”

PSRC will be conducting a virtual open house for its aviation study Oct. 30.

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