Sunday, February 28, 2021

Small airports would benefit from Dent-sponsored bill

by Angelica Relente, Herald Legislative Writer
| February 10, 2021 1:00 AM

MOSES LAKE — Creating a solid state program to help fund small airports in Washington is a priority for two local officials and a state legislator.

House Bill 1030 would establish a loan program, under the Community Aviation Revitalization Board, to provide direct funding to certain airports, according to the bill’s text. The loans would be used for “general aviation activities.” Job creation is one of the aims of the loans.

Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, is HB 1030’s primary sponsor. The measure has a companion bill in the Senate, SB 5031, sponsored by Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside.

Dent said airports can use the loans for projects that are not permissible with grant money. Smaller airports are prioritized because they struggle more with finances than large airports do.

Rich Mueller, airport director for the Port of Moses Lake, which owns and operates Grant County International Airport, said Washington state has limited grant funding available for airports. The state “comes up pretty weak” in comparison to other states on funding for aeronautics.

Dent’s bill would make up for the state’s lack of a robust grant program, Mueller said.

“It’s the next best thing,” Mueller said.

In 2018, the Community Aviation Revitalization Loan Program was established with $5 million, according to the bill’s text. House Bill 1656, which would have created a permanent loan program, passed in the legislature in 2018 but was vetoed.

Dent said the loan program helped smaller airports borrow money for economic development purposes.

“What the bill does is it puts (the loan program) into statute,” Dent said.

The $5 million funding for the loan program stemmed from the state’s General Fund budget, Dent said. HB 1030 would allow the loan program to continue without having to worry about where funding comes from.

Darrin Jackson, a member of the Moses Lake Municipal Airport Advisory Board, said these loans help a lot of small municipalities improve airport infrastructure, which they may not be able to support financially otherwise.

“It sounds funny, but it allows smaller airports to build a bathroom,” Jackson said. “It allows smaller airports to fix potholes and runways.”

The municipal airport in Moses Lake received a loan from the program last year, Jackson said. The loan was used for a self-contained aviation fuel station. Another project Jackson envisions for the airport is to add 40 more hangars.

Most of the funding municipal airports receive comes from cities or private sources, Jackson said. The city of Moses Lake’s budget does not always factor in what needs to be done at the municipal airport in Moses Lake.

Jackson said board members often have to come up with unusual ways to obtain funding for the municipal airport. The Community Aviation Revitalization loan program offers one such way — and they come with a low-interest rate.

“It’s almost like getting free money,” Jackson said.

Mueller said airports differ in their access to funding. Grant County International Airport can receive funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, but some airports are not eligible to receive FAA funding at all, he said.

And there are restrictions on how the money can be used, Mueller said. Building a hangar is one of the things FAA funding cannot be spent on.

“(The FAA) can help me possibly with the pavement in front of the hangar, but they can’t help me with the hangar,” Mueller said.

Mueller said the GCIA does not receive funding from the Community Aviation Revitalization loan program. Although the airport is eligible to receive a loan, it has other funding sources available. Receiving funding from the state is “low on the priority list.”

“We prefer to leave that available for other airports that don’t have as many options,” Mueller said.

There would be an application process and criteria to meet before an airport could qualify to receive a loan, according to the bill. Airports with fewer than 75,000 enplanements, or passengers, in a year would be eligible for a loan.

Job creation is one of the criteria the Community Aviation Revitalization Board would use to evaluate a loan application, according to the bill’s text. Improving an airport’s maintenance or operation would be another goal for the loan program.

Representatives in the state House had not voted on HB 1030 as of Tuesday.

(This story has been updated to reflect Rich Mueller's correct title.)