Duluth airport fears losing $7 million in stimulus fundingby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
The federal stimulus plan has provided a big boost to hopes for a new terminal building at the Duluth airport. The $65 million terminal would replace one built decades ago. An airport official said the current facility is dysfunctional in a post-Sept. 11 world. But the project still needs millions of state taxpayer dollars to get started, and that's not a sure thing in this year's legislature.
Duluth, Minn. — Duluth's 35-year-old terminal building actually looks pretty modern. Its long roof slopes from a height of three stories in back to a single story on the front side.
But according to Airport Manager Bryan Ryks, the building doesn't work for the flying public today - especially since airport security ramped up in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We've been working on this since really 9/11," Ryks said. "Once 9/11 hit, security completely changed."
As Ryks is talking, the airport is mostly empty, but that's because no airplanes are coming in just now. He takes out a photo with passengers crammed into a secure boarding area - several forced to stand for lack of adequate seating.
About half the area that was once open to passengers is now taken up by a security screening region with equipment like baggage x-ray machines.
"There's standing room only," he said. "It's inadequate seating. There's no restrooms in those facilities, and it can be a very unpleasant situation."
Once passengers are screened, there's no access to the airport restaurant or lounge, and that limits the amount of money the airport can bring in for operations.
And don't get Ryks started on the rest of the aging building. It's expensive to heat and cool, and that long sloping roof actually creates a hazard in the winter.
"When it snows like it did the other day, as soon as temperatures warm up a little bit, all of that snow comes sliding like an avalanche off this roof," Ryks said. "We actually have to close our front sidewalk. People would get hit by this avalanche of snow coming off the roof."
And, the building is too close to the airport's airspace under current FAA regulations.
Plans have been drawn for a replacement. A new terminal is to be built just in front of the current one and the funding is starting to show up. It's combination of federal funds, airport revenue and airport bonding, with more than $7 million announced for the project last week in federal stimulus money. Terminal construction would create some 200 jobs.
All that's needed to get started this year is state matching funds of just under $5 million. But that's been a little tricky.
Duluth's request made it into the Senate bonding bill, but not in a House version.
That's a concern for Airport Manager Ryks.
"If the state bonding money did not come through, we could be in a position where we would not be able to spend that stimulus money, because it's one complete project, and we could be in a position of having to send stimulus money back to the FAA which would be distributed to other states," he said.
State Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said any project that can start immediately and create jobs should be considered.
"The goal is to put people to work this summer, and the Duluth airport project would have done that," Huntley said. "But I'm still very optimistic that it will be in the final bill."
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, shares that optimism. She chairs the House Capital Investment Committee, which passed the House version of the bonding bill.
That's the version that left out Duluth and a handful of other airport projects. Hausman said the Duluth terminal is the kind of project that deserves state support.
"We ought to be looking very carefully at which are the items in each bill that require dollars to match federal money, and the Duluth airport is certainly one of those," Hausman said.
It would appear to fit Gov. Pawlenty's bonding plans as well, according to spokesman Brian McClung.
"Governor Pawlenty has not taken a position on any of the specific bonding projects in either the House or the Senate bill," McClung said. "But the Governor has said that he's willing to consider bonding funds, especially for those projects that can match or otherwise access additional federal funding."
Airport officials have secured almost $39 million for the project. They'll still need about $26 million more, including over $16 million in state bonding requests over the coming two years.
If the bonding falls into place, site preparation can get under way this summer. Work on the terminal itself could begin in another year, with the entire project completed possibly by late 2011.
- All Things Considered, 04/02/2009, 5:50 p.m.