Sunday, August 04, 2013

Topeka’s airport setup unique: Phillip Billard, Topeka Regional airports both reliant on taxpayer money

The four-engine KC-135R Stratotankers can weigh up to 322,500 pounds and require 10,000 feet of runway space to fly. The 190th Air Refueling Wing at Topeka Regional Airport houses 12 of these tankers, averaging a total of three to five flights a day — though they share the air with other military aircraft several times a week.

Meanwhile, across town, John Evans prepares his twin-engine, 6,750-pound Cessna 414 for flight. Evans, a maternity and fetal medical specialist with Stormont-Vail HealthCare, takes off from Philip Billard Municipal Airport several times a month, usually for business and medical consults.

The mammoth tanker and Evans’ comparatively miniscule plane don’t seem to fit on the same runway. But it happens, to a limited extent, at Topeka Regional.

However, having two airports to handle the different traffic is as efficient as it is safe, said Eric Johnson, president of the Metropolitan Topeka Airport Authority.

"It’s a good way of separating the different types of aircraft, not only in the skies, but also on the ground," he said.

But other airports in the state and country combine military, general aviation and corporation operations quite seamlessly.

Also considering its size and proximity to regional hubs, Topeka deviates from similar cities in that it has two public airports, both of which are heavily reliant upon property taxes.

The Topeka Capital-Journal compared the city’s setup with that of five cities throughout the country — three comparable capital cities and two that also happened to have two airports on the Federal Aviation Administration’s initial list for air traffic control tower closures.

Of the seven publicly owned airports in those cities, three collect local tax dollars. Two of the five cities have two publicly owned airports. However, at least one airport in each wasn’t funded by property taxes.

Two airports

Consolidating Topeka Regional to Billard is out of the question: The runway can’t accommodate the larger aircraft, Johnson said. But Topeka Regional’s 12,800-foot runway can handle the general aviation and corporate planes that use Billard.

The 190th says its military operations wouldn’t be affected if Billard’s traffic moved over to Topeka Regional. And Evans, with his experience landing in some of the country’s biggest airports, isn’t daunted by military activity. However, he said, the community benefits by having both airports.

"It’s not so much that they have to stay apart," Evans said. "They have different roles to play that justify the need for both of them. They both serve their own needs very well."

Moving operations from Billard to Topeka Regional would cost tens of millions of dollars, primarily from building the necessary hangars to house the current 76 planes, Johnson said. One 10-bank hangar, he said, costs $1 million.

"You can’t even amortize that over 20 years to get a return on the investment," he said. "And we’d have to do that eight times."

The MTAA also would have to pay back the FAA for projects it has funded throughout the years that haven’t yet met their life expectancy, Johnson said.

Considering Billard has an annual economic impact of $14 million and Topeka Regional another $99.6 million, Johnson said, citing a state analysis, it would make even less sense to combine the two operations.

"Can it be done? Sure," he said. "The mix is done at other airports. I don’t dispute that. But the fact remains: We have two airports right now, and there’s a huge cost involved in closing one and combining everything at the other."

Colin McKee, deputy director of the Johnson County Airport Authority, said the same for Olathe’s two public airports, Johnson County Executive Airport and New Century AirCenter. The two could be combined, he said, but there would be a lot of opposition.

"It’s a lot harder than you think," McKee said. "You have to buy the businesses out, sell the land off and return money to the FAA. You’re talking about millions of millions of dollars."

Both were on the latest tower closure list from the FAA, and Johnson County, which owns both, has decided it won’t be able to fund the towers if funding is cut, McKee said. The airports don’t receive any taxpayer dollars, relying on a business park, its significant corporate aviation activity, and other revenue streams to pay for its $6 million budget.

In terms of general aviation operations, Olathe’s Johnson County Executive is fairly comparable to Billard, both logging just more than 30,000 flights through June 27, according to FAA flight records. The populations are similar as well, with Olathe being larger than Topeka by a mere 3,000 people, according to 2012 census data.

Olathe has two other airports, both privately owned, though one is open to the public.

Atlanta also had two airports on the FAA tower closure list — one owned by Fulton County, another by Cobb County. Like Topeka, the city was able to get one off the closure list by the second round.

The FAA took Fulton County off the list likely because of the airport’s proximity to Atlanta’s major hub — Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, said airport manager Doug Barrett.

Without a tower, he said, the airport’s general aviation community would have a legitimate safety concern with the amount of air traffic. Toward that end, and perhaps another point in its favor with the FAA, Fulton County has been paying out of pocket for nighttime tower service for the past 18 years, he said.

Unlike Topeka, for the tower to remain open in Atlanta doesn’t rely on taxpayer dollars. However, the county has a population of nearly 980,000 — five and one-half times the size of Shawnee County.

Atlanta has 10 airports, nine of which are owned by and open to the public and primarily cater to general aviation flights. Of the nine public airports, four receive property tax revenue from their local counties.

Even with so many airports, Barrett said, the Atlanta community needs the Fulton County Airport.

"The whole purpose of general aviation is that where the airport is located will attract specific traffic that is desirous of being as close to downtown as possible," he said.

Johnson, the MTAA president, used similar reasoning to justify Billard’s existence, highlighting that the Kansas Highway Patrol, the governor’s office and various corporate enterprises, as well as private individuals, use the airport because it is located in the Oakland community, just 10 minutes northeast of downtown Topeka.

"It’s good for Topeka to have a convenient downtown airport," he said. "I think the economic impact speaks for itself."

That location also is critical, he said, in emergency situations because of its proximity to the city’s hospitals.

Johnson conceded that Topeka didn’t plan to have two public airports. When Billard was built in 1940, it was designed to handle commercial operations as, at the time, Topeka Regional was the Forbes Field Air Force base.

But the base closed in 1973, deeding the property over to the county. The MTAA was created three years later. Since the 1970s, commercial rigs have outgrown Billard’s runway, shifting larger aircraft to Topeka Regional and leaving general aviation and corporate traffic to Billard, Johnson said.

It is common for cities and communities to own airports, Johnson said. That makes sense, he said, because, like public transit and libraries, airports are a public service.

"Typically airports are owned by cities, counties, states or authorities for the main reason that they are a benefit to the communities that they serve," Johnson said.

And it isn’t as if pilots use the airports for free, he said. They pay fuel flowage fees and rent for hangar space.

Still, Topeka is somewhat rare in having two public airports that both receive property taxes.

The capital cities of Olympia, Wash., Springfield, Ill., and Lincoln, Neb., have populations within 150,000 people of Topeka and are within a few hours of the state’s major city and subsequently primary airport.

None of those cities has two publicly owned airports, but both Olympia and Springfield rely on taxpayer money.

Topeka’s airport authority will require more than $3 million in taxpayer money next year — nearly half of its $6.5 million in expenditures. With a proposed mill levy of 2.044 next year, a $100,000 home in the city of Topeka would owe $23.51.

However, Johnson said, the MTAA constantly is working to improve efficiencies and decrease its reliance on local tax dollars.

"We want to minimize that to the greatest extent possible," he said.

The FAA, he also said, charges airports to be as self-sufficient as possible.

The $4.8 million of taxpayer dollars going to the Port of Olympia, which also includes a marina, don’t go toward day-to-day operations. The port relies on more than $10 million in lease and service revenue for that.

Instead the tax, which amounts to $52 on a median home, goes toward debt service and capital improvements.

The Lincoln Airport in Nebraska also brings in about $10 million from other revenue streams — making it completely self-reliant without property tax dollars.

Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport relies on taxpayer dollars for half of its budget — collecting nearly $2.3 million from property taxes in 2013. That amounts to $34.64 for a $120,000 home. Its total operating expenses were nearly $4.9 million this year.

Those figures are lower than Topeka’s airports, despite the Springfield airport being significantly busier. It logged more than 533,000 military operations as of June 27. Topeka Regional had fewer than 18,000.

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