Senate budget puts $90 million into regional airports

With reduced funding from D.C. for airports and improvements needed, lawmakers say new cash streams are necessary to compete for jobs

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal

DURHAM — While the N.C. House prepares to release it’s budget later in the week, the one the N.C. Senate approved early Friday morning contained $90 million in state money for regional airports across the state. Senators say the funding is to bring infrastructure up to speed and keep the state’s economy moving. Part of the money is from taxes paid on rental cars that used to go into the state’s General Fund. Under the Senate’s budget it would go into the State Highway Fund for airports.It represents a big shift because for years airports in N.C. have been funded primarily through federal money collected by taxes on tickets. With ticket prices stagnating, federal funding is drying up.”We are talking about a serious economic driver and it hasn’t had to be a state priority because it’s been a federal funding issue,” said Ches McDowell, lobbyist for the N.C. Airport Association.”We have to fundamentally change how airports are funded; that’s what the legislature has made a priority to do,” McDowell added. “Sen. [Bill] Rabon, especially, believes that airports are a big part of transportation infrastructure and a part of creating jobs in manufacturing and other industries here.”Among the allocations would be more than $2 million for the Fayetteville Regional Airport, $14.3 million for Piedmont Triad International Airport, and $52.6 million for Raleigh-Durham International Airport toward runway improvements. The other airports say that they plan to improve taxiway lighting and make runway and ramp improvements. Wilmington International Airport would get nearly $12 million for their proposed $80 million improvement program that includes a terminal expansion and a parking garage. Charlotte Douglas International Airport was not listed among those airports to receive funds but could be in future allocations.At Raleigh-Durham Internaional Airport, just outside the state’s capital city, airport officials say the money is critical to keep up with the increasing demands for international flights. They say that they will put the money toward a $300 million project to replace the main runway. RDU serves 11 million travelers a year and 30,000 a day. If the runway is not replaced, officials say, nonstop flights to the West Coast, London and Paris could be at risk.”This is welcome news to airports, communities and travelers around the state, who deserve a safe and efficient aviation system,” said Michael Landguth, president and CEO of RDU. “The federal funding system alone cannot be relied upon to help our state compete for jobs and business investment.”McDowell says the funds are part of a long-term strategy to invest in key infrastructure to make N.C. more appealing to companies considering relocating to the state and bringing high-paying jobs. According to site selectors, connectivity in airports is a critical factor. N.C.’s airports are also used for military housed in the state.”This indicates that N.C. absolutely does not play around when we are talking about our infrastructure,” said McDowell. “You can’t look at infrastructure as one thing, like we should spend money on highways not airports, seaports, not rail. It’s all connected, and the legislature is making a serious investment in all these modes. It’s all a part of the puzzle.”The money would be distributed to airports over two years, $40 million next year and $50 million the following, and could be spent on improvements or to pay debt services or other finance costs.The Senate passed the measure as part of their budget 32-15 in a vote taken Friday in the very early hours. The House has reportedly already completed their part of the transportation plan and is expected to release their full budget later in the week.