State's airport policy could kill federal funding

DOT's planned closure of some rural airports violates agreement with FAA

Posted: Thursday, August 08, 2002

ANCHORAGE - The state's failure to maintain several rural runways could threaten federal funding for all of Alaska's airports, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities officials said the Legislature's failure to fund the agency's requested budget will require the closing of about 18 rural airports. Five of the airports, however, have received federal funds for improvements in recent years, under a promise the runways would remain open at least two decades from receipt of the money, according to FAA officials.

"The state is jeopardizing federal funding if they don't live up to their obligation," FAA spokeswoman Joette Storm told the Alaska Journal of Commerce. "Citizens of the state have to realize there are ramifications."

According to state officials, no maintenance will be provided at Kasilof, Ninilchik, Quartz Creek, Lawing, Goose Bay, Sheep Mountain, Clear, Chistochina, Circle Hot Springs, Wiseman, Dahl Creek, Summit, Boundary, Livengood, Salmon Lake, Copper Center and Tazlina.

And Skwentna Airport will not have lighting under the proposed budget cuts.

The maintenance adds up to only $152,400 for all the airports, but the state says it is more than $6 million short this year, and has cut winter road maintenance next year on several highways, closed maintenance stations and is cutting 70 jobs, including a deputy commissioner.

The Republican-led House and Senate cut budget requests from several agencies in addition to the state transportation department.

Debbie Roth, an FAA manager in Anchorage, said when it comes to closing airports that receive federal money for improvements, it's not a matter of just deleting them out of the state budget.

"There are some strings attached," Roth said.

Clear, for example, has received more than $2 million in federal airport improvement money since 1993. When the state applied for the money, it gave assurances the airport would remain open until 2013, according to the FAA.

The FAA has in the past come down on state or local governments that did not honor their promises, Roth said.

Millions of dollars in airport improvement funds were cut in California after the Los Angeles International Airport did not use some federal money for the purpose applied for in grants, Roth said.

"Legally, there are a lot of things that could happen, including making the state pay back the (airport improvement) money," Roth said. "But I don't think it will ever get to that."

The state last year received $162 million in federal airport improvement money for 262 airports, according to the state.

Kurt Parkan, deputy transportation commissioner, said his agency is aware of the assurances given to maintain the runways under the federal airport improvement program.

"We do have a problem," Parkan said. "We've been talking to the FAA and whatever we need to do, we'll do. We are not going to, in any way, jeopardize airport-improvement funding."

That likely will mean passing the buck to the Legislature, which already must wrestle with additional costs in a supplemental budget next year with the maintenance funding reinstated for the Steese Highway and the Circle airport.

After pressure from residents, Gov. Tony Knowles last month ordered the transportation department to find $225,000 to keep the Steese open in the winter and another $14,400 to keep the Circle airport open. Both had been cut in the state operating budget.

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