Airport upgrades on tap as federal dollars flow

Federal infrastructure dollars are pouring into airports from Sleetmute, Alaska, to Islip, New York, to help pay for often long-deferred upgrades.
United and Southwest Airlines jetliners taxi down a runway to take off from Denver International Airport Tuesday, July 5, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Federal infrastructure dollars are pouring into airports from Sleetmute, Alaska, to Islip, New York, to help pay for often long-deferred upgrades.

It’s part of a funding bonanza unleashed by Congress in its major infrastructure package last year that earmarked $25 billion over five years for air transportation. That included $5 billion for air traffic facilities and another $5 billion for airport terminals.

The biggest chunk of money — $15 billion — is pegged for airport infrastructure, ranging from runway improvements to the purchase of snow removal equipment.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced in December an initial $2.89 billion in allocations to more than 3,000 U.S. airports in all 50 states and five territories. Since then, airports have submitted proposals for shovel-ready projects, and the Federal Aviation Administration has awarded five rounds of Airport Improvement Grants worth nearly $330 million.

Among the largest grants to date:

  • $49 million to rehabilitate the runway and taxiway at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Hawaii
  • $46 million to improve airport drainage and erosion control at Denver International Airport
  • $24 million to construct at taxiway at San Diego International Airport
  • $16 million to reconstruct a runway at St. Louis Lambert International Airport
  • $8.6 million to reconstruct the taxiway at Nashville International Airport

At Denver International, which is in the process of opening 39 new gates, the money will help fund an expansion of the airport’s stormwater retention ponds. They are an integral part of a collection system that captures excess plane deicer chemical and keeps it out of local waterways, where it could damage aquatic life.

“We want to grow in such a way that we can still maintain one of the most sustainable airports in the world,” said Scott Morrissey, the airport’s senior vice president for sustainability. “This grant is going to help us to achieve that vision.”

Federal infrastructure dollars are also going to smaller regional airports.

Built during World War II as a defensive airfield, Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York recently received a $3.7 million grant to fund 90% of a taxiway improvement that includes new pavement, signage and LED lighting.

Separately, MacArthur Airport will also receive $14 million to upgrade the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems in its 1960s-era passenger terminal.

“It’s significant; it takes care of a substantial portion of what needed to be done and urgent matters,” said Shelley LaRose-Arken, the airport’s commissioner.

The money is also flowing to some of the country’s most remote outposts.

Sleetmute, Alaska, a tiny Alaska Native village inaccessible by road, sits in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta region roughly 250 miles west of Anchorage. One of 235 state-managed airports in Alaska, Sleetmute has been awarded nearly $24 million for a long list of upgrades, including to rehabilitate its gravel runway.

“We need the airport because that’s how we get our mail, how we get our groceries,” said Ellen Yako, president of the Sleetmute Tribal Council.

Dylan Blankenship, of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said the airport’s remote location led to the project’s steep cost, given the challenge of getting equipment and supplies to the site.

“I know it’s a small population center, but it’s the way Alaskans live and it’s their only lifeline,” Blankenship said.

Much smaller projects include $130,000 for new runway lighting, a perimeter gate and a new snow plow for the municipal airport in Afton, Wyoming — population 1,984, elevation 6,221, 70 miles south of Jackson Hole. While the airport does not have commercial traffic, airport director Rick Sessions said it is home to approximately 10 private jets and 50 piston engine aircraft, and he’s had to plow it with a pickup truck to keep the runway open.

But even as the airport money starts flowing, the National Association of State Aviation Officials cautions that there are challenges to implementing an airport infrastructure investment program of this size.

“It’s not that anybody is at fault, it’s just so massive,” said Greg Pecoraro, NASAO’s president and CEO.

Pecoraro said the infrastructure law essentially doubled the amount of money airports could expect to receive in a typical year. He said his association, along with roughly 40 states, have created an infrastructure work group that is identifying ways the grant program could work better. The plan is to share the work group’s findings with the FAA by year’s end.

“It’s early, year one. Let’s help our federal partners figure out where the challenges are, the chokepoints,” Pecoraro said. He added that aviation is a good public investment “because it is such an economic engine in so many communities.”

In addition to the runways and taxiways that are getting a lift from the infrastructure spending, the Biden administration announced this summer nearly $1 billion in grants to upgrade and expand airport terminal capacity.

Those projects include $50 million for four new gates at Orlando International Airport, $20 million for a new 700,000-square-foot terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport, and $10 million for elevator, escalator and bathroom upgrades at Alabama’s Huntsville International Airport.

Other grants will fund projects to make airports more accessible to historically disadvantaged populations, including people living in rural areas, as well as improve the environmental sustainability of airports.

The FAA awarded grants for the replacement of two 60-year-old air traffic control towers; one at Peoria International Airport in Illinois and the other at Asheville Regional Airport in North Carolina.

Nationwide, the FAA estimates there is a $43.6 billion backlog in airport safety and modernization projects.