Brake: Decision on federal EAS funds will not impact runway extension project

MORGANTOWN — City Manager Paul Brake said uncertainty surrounding the city’s participation in the federal Essential Air Service program will not impact its efforts to extend the Morgantown Municipal Airport’s runway from 5,199 to 6,200 feet.
Even so, the City of Morgantown remains in a holding pattern regarding the project as it awaits word from the Federal Aviation Administration on two key documents — an environmental assessment and the benefit cost analysis that will determine how much of the work the FAA intends to reimburse.
The city was served documents  from the U.S. Department of Transportation on March 29 explaining that, for the second year running, its municipal airport was included on a list of those scheduled to lose EAS eligibility.
EAS is a federal program enacted to ensure smaller communities maintain access to commercial air service. The city received nearly $ 3 million in EAS funds in 2018, but due to low enplanement numbers, its per-passenger subsidy topped the $200 threshold, triggering the USDOT’s decision.
Like last year, the city is petitioning for a waiver that will allow it to remain in the program for another year. Losing the EAS subsidy would mean the loss of carrier Southern Express Airways, which has been the city’s commercial partner since late 2016.
Asked if the USDOT’s decision on EAS funding would have any bearing on the needed FAA approvals for the long-coveted runway project, Brake said it would not because the benefit cost analysis is centered around private/corporate usage, chartered flights and recreational pilots — which, along with military use, account for the bulk of the airport’s revenue.
Brake said the runway extension project is now projected at $44 million with an estimated $10 million of that coming by way of  local match. He said the work, which will include the relocation of 4 million cubic yards of dirt, will likely take six years to complete.
It’s also now known that the runway project will not include assistance through the Innovative Readiness Training program — through which military units take on public works projects as training exercises. It was once thought the savings generated through the program was the key to completing the extension.
That fell by the wayside when Air Force Reservists arrived in 2017 to tackle the first phase of airport improvements — three new aircraft hangar buildings.
The project was behind from the start and ended up costing more than had the city simply contracted the work. The reservists left town having completed a portion of one hangar, forcing the city to contract with Lytle Construction to fix what had been completed and finish the rest of the project.
The hangar buildings have recently been finished. The city will hold a ribbon cutting ceremony next week.
County Commissioner Sean Sikora, who sits on the Runway Extension Development (RED) committee, said the notion that free labor through the IRT program was going to cut millions from the cost of the  extension project was “a fairy tale.”
Instead, the focus has turned to the creation of a tax increment finance, or TIF, district that will include the airport and help generate revenue for infrastructure improvements, including an I-68 commerce park.
The plan is to pull the earth from the prospective commerce park site to build out the hill that will support the longer runway.
Brake said he traveled to Charleston recently to meet with the state development office on the subject of a TIF to help finance the runway and linked commerce park projects.
According to Sikora, the county’s development authority has already invested more than $1 million in acquiring property  with the anticipation of the project moving forward, which it is doing, but on the federal government’s schedule.
Even so, Sikora said he’s confident the extension project is going to happen.
“We need to get to the point where we start pushing dirt, because when you get the runway extension, you get the business park, and that’s where our development authority is — that’s our big get, having that park developed. I’m confident we’re going to get there. From a development authority standpoint, we have to get there,” Sikora said.
“I wouldn’t say the project is moving full steam ahead, because it’s moving at a glacial pace. I think it’s just about getting it to that tipping point, and then I think you’re going to see a lot of movement.”
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