Federally-funded projects at Northwest Arkansas city airports flat since 2015, falling nationwide

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 178 views 

Fayetteville Municipal Airport, which offered commercial airline service before Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport opened, has plans to widen its taxiway – shown in the picture – using federal funds.

Planned capital projects at U.S. airports have fallen 3% since 2015, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, but city airports in Northwest Arkansas haven’t seen a decline in the projects they are planning to complete with federal funding.

The scheduled needs of U.S. airports have declined to $32.5 billion, from $33.5 billion, for projects eligible for federal grants over the next five years, according to FAA’s National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems. Capital needs have fallen 37%, from $52.3 billion since 2011, and 29%, from $46.2 billion since 2001.

But while capital projects eligible for federal funds have declined, infrastructure needs for the next five years have risen 32% to $99.9 billion since 2015, according to trade organization Airports Council International-North America. Terminal projects represent 54.1% of all infrastructure needs.

The rise in airport infrastructure needs “reflects the fact that a recovering economy and increasing traffic demand, coupled with airline consolidation and their strategic shift to focus on hub operations, require large and medium hub airports to invest in major infrastructure improvement projects,” according to the ACI.

Airports had until noon May 1 to notify the FAA of whether they will use the money available to them from the Airport Improvement Program this fiscal year, which ran between October 2016 and April 2017. Projects eligible for the funding were included the Airports Capital Improvement Plan that each airport submitted last year.

Project costs, excluding large, medium and small hub airports, but including city airports, is expected to remain flat, from 2015. However, this funding source has been or is becoming the largest funding source for NWA municipal airports, such as Bentonville Municipal Airport.

Mike Bender, public works director for Bentonville, is overseeing the airport along with Travis Matlock, engineering director for the city electric department. Bender, who previously oversaw the airport a few years ago, said historically state and federal funding has provided for about the same level of airport funding for projects, such as overlay work and construction of a southern turnaround for aircraft. But the airport has started to see greater funding amounts from the FAA through the Airport Improvement Program.

In October, Bender expects the construction of a western taxiway to start, and the nearly $2.5 million project will be completed in two phases. Design work for the project is wrapping up now.

“It’s a good sized project,” Bender said. “It’s good for safety. It keeps the runway clear.”

With a taxiway, airplanes won’t have to remain on the runway as long after landing. The project will take more than a year to complete once work begins, but he doesn’t expect the runway will need to close during construction. Between 2019 and 2021, a taxiway on the east side the runway is planned for construction, and is expected to cost between $1.5 million and $1.7 million.

Fayetteville Municipal Airport, which offered commercial airline service before Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport opened, has plans to widen its taxiway using federal funds. The $1.65 million project will allow larger aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 the Razorbacks have used for charter flights, to safely maneuver from the runway to the taxiway without exiting the safety area, said Summer Fallen, financial coordinator for the airport. Project design is expected to be completed this year, and construction should start next year.

“This project is still under review,” Fallen said. “This information we have now may change some.”

In the past two years, projects the Fayetteville airport has completed with the federal funding included converting the taxiway lights to LED lighting and improving the tarmac pavement, Fallen said. In 2020, the airport plans to rehabilitate the existing runway, which is expected to cost $3.45 million.

In 2016, Rogers received $5.95 million in federal funds to strengthen the runway at Rogers Executive Airport. Also, Springdale Municipal Airport has been planning a $2.8 million project to rehabilitate the runway. The work would include overlaying the existing runway and connector taxiways, replacing cable in runway circuit, and replacing existing incandescent lights with LED lighting, according to city documents.

Reconstruction projects account for 35% or $11.5 billion in development costs for projects eligible to receive the Airport Improvement Plan funding. In 2015, 33% or $11.05 billion of the funding comprised of reconstruction projects.

Over the next five years, increases are expected in reconstruction, standards, terminal and new airport projects, according to the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems. Decreases are projected for safety, security, environment and capacity projects through 2021.

Over the past 15 years, AIP funding has exceeded $3 billion annually. Some of the projects not eligible for the funding include vehicle parking structures, hangars, air cargo buildings and revenue-generating portions of large passenger terminal buildings.

In January, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, a small hub airport, began construction on a $35 million parking deck, which is being paid for with a 15-year $25 million bond issue and $10 million in cash reserves. The project should be completed in August 2018.

Between 1996 and 2016, the amount of funding Arkansas airports received from the Airport Improvement Program has risen 56% to $28.45 million, from $18.16 million. But since 2006, the funding has declined 7%, from $30.70 million.