Wednesday, July 12, 2017

An Airport Awaits Infrastructure Takeoff: Wish list for crumbling West Virginia facility is a big ask given U.S. funding levels

The Wall Street Journal
By Kris Maher
Updated July 11, 2017 8:29 p.m. ET

CHARLESTON, W.Va.—Two years ago, a safety area at the end of a runway designed to mitigate emergencies at Yeager Airport caused one instead when it broke free and slid down a hillside, crushing a church and forcing more than 100 people from their homes.

The accident prompted airport officials to develop a far-reaching emergency infrastructure project to improve safety, as well as bring the airport, opened in 1947 amid hilly terrain outside this city of 50,000, into the 21st century. Airport officials have a wish list of 15 items totaling $395 million, including a runway extension, new lighting systems and the replacement of the 67-year-old terminal.

That’s a big ask, even spread over multiple years, considering the current level of airport infrastructure spending nationally.

The federal program that funds most airport projects gave a total of $3.2 billion in grants for 1,768 projects nationwide last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which administers the program. The agency estimates that level of spending is about half the $6.5 billion in capital needs that airports will have in each of the next five years because of increasing passenger levels and aging facilities.

So far this year, the FAA announced grants totaling about $863 million. That includes $904,000 for Yeager Airport, which officials said would pay for studying parts of the facility’s infrastructure plan. Other grants included nearly $13 million to reconstruct taxiways at Charlotte/Douglas International, a large hub in North Carolina, and $2 million to build a terminal at a small airport in Rock Springs, Wyo.

Airport officials say such funding, however, is generally failing to keep pace with infrastructure needs. They want Congress to eliminate the cap on fees that airports charge passengers to pay for capital improvements—a move opposed by airlines.

The fees are now capped at $4.50 per flight segment.

“By any measure, airports need additional resources to upgrade aging facilities, accommodate rising demand, and to keep pace with evolving safety and security standards,”  Todd Hauptli, CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives, testified at a Senate hearing in March to argue for lifting the cap.

Officials here are keenly aware of President Donald Trump’s pledges to improve the nation’s infrastructure, including upgrading its airports. In May 2016, then-candidate Trump flew into the airport before giving a speech in Charleston. He carried West Virginia with nearly 69% of the vote.

“We watched the national election very closely and saw where President Trump was saying he wanted to do things for airports,” said Terry Sayre, executive director of the airport. “He won West Virginia big. It’s time to give back.”

Airports across the country are beset by congestion and delays and often rank poorly in comparisons with facilities in other countries, as funding in the U.S. has failed to keep pace with the growth in air travel and much-needed upgrades.

Yeager is a prime example. Its air-traffic-control tower is 67 years old and its outdated terminal gets by with a small security checkpoint with little space for passengers to line up.

The airport, while smaller than many others in the U.S., still provides an economic boost to West Virginia and the Charleston region, which have been hard-hit by the decline in coal. Yeager supports $174 million a year in economic activity and more than 1,800 jobs, according to a study commissioned by the airport.

Officials said their plan would create construction and other jobs. The upgraded airport would also increase the amount of commercial, military and cargo traffic and make the region more attractive to out-of-state businesses, they said.

“We believe it will be a huge economic development [boon] for the whole state,” said Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission. “If they’re going to fix anybody’s airport, why not this one?”

The most pressing safety issue at Yeager Airport is repairing the runway safety area that broke away in March 2015. Since then, the airport has removed 540,000 cubic yards of collapsed earth at a cost of $9.6 million. A lawsuit filed by the airport against the engineering firm and contractors that built the extension is pending.

Officials want to rebuild an emergency system that acts like a runaway truck ramp to stop planes from going over the edge of the elevated runway. In 2010, the former system was credited with saving the lives of 33 people aboard a US Airways flight when it stopped the plane during an aborted takeoff.

An interim system would cost $14 million. It would include building a short wall, 200-foot-long bed of materials that would collapse to stop a plane traveling at 40 to 70 knots, and turn on an instrument-landing system at that end of the runway so planes could land using instruments-only during bad weather.

Mr. Carper of the county commission said he hoped this system would quickly be funded either by the FAA or by Congress, saying it wasn’t much money for the safety enhancements. “That would be like putting in new ashtrays at some airports,” he said.

Named after Chuck Yeager, a test pilot from West Virginia who broke the sound barrier in 1947, the airport sees about 130 takeoffs and landings each day for about 430,000 passengers a year.

The plan’s biggest changes would involve extending the end of the runway opposite from the proposed safety area, to increase the airport’s current 5,724 feet of landing distance to well over 6,000. The longer runway would allow bigger planes and additional carriers to fly out of the airport and eliminate weight restrictions that sometimes require airlines to reduce the number of passengers on flights.

Under the proposal, a valley would be filled in, partly burying a park, but creating more flat land for a new athletic complex.

Mr. Sayre, the airport’s executive director, sees the project as a way to help the state reinvent itself.

“West Virginia has been married to coal forever,” he said. “In order to be able to expand businesses in our region, we need access to the global economy.”

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