Long path ahead for $16 million airport plan
April 12, 2012
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  • April 7, 2012


    With a master plan update and recommended airport layout plan in hand, the Kalispell City Council meets Monday to start exploring what to do about Kalispell City Airport.

    Monday’s work session will include Jeff Walla of Stelling Engineers. The firm completed the study over the last two years, exploring a dozen-plus options for Kalispell’s 83-year-old general aviation facility.

    Like the recommendation from a 1999 master plan, Stelling has settled on an upgrade that would bring the airport up to B-II design standards and make it eligible for federal money to cover 90 percent of the cost.

    Gary Gates, a program assistant with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airports District Office in Helena, also will attend the council work session.

    The meeting is designed to let council members learn more about the master plan update and its findings and the recommended airport layout plan.

    Council members hope to decide the airport’s fate this spring. A tentative timeline has them voting on a path forward May 21.

    IF COUNCIL adopts the recommended airport layout plan, it would kick off a project Stelling expects to take at least six years to complete.

    Upgrading the airport to B-II standards would make the $16 million project eligible for up to $13.5 million from the Airport Improvement Program.

    The federal program raises money for airport projects from fees and taxes on airline tickets, aviation fuel and aircraft parts.

    Kalispell also could be reimbursed for $3 million already spent on land and airport improvements over the last 10 years – money spent toward a similar B-II upgrade that never materialized.

    THAT LEVEL of federal funding, not available through other airport options explored in the study, may be hard to secure. Many projects compete for limited resources.

    The amount of funding needed could not be paid out all at once. And on the project’s front end, some costs would have to be paid by the city until it could be reimbursed three or even four years later.

    That includes buying or getting under contract 114 acres of land from 17 owners and mitigating two KGEZ radio towers that extend into what should be protected airspace.

    No federal funding would be awarded until those steps are met: It’s an all-or-nothing proposition, according to Stelling’s report.

    “Even one missing piece of required property could derail or postpone reimbursement of any costs the city may have incurred [for] land purchases, tower mitigation or prior development.”

    Earlier attempts to upgrade to B-II standards stalled when the city could not mitigate the towers with former owner John Stokes, who lost KGEZ through a bankruptcy case he is appealing for a second time.

    Land negotiations could not start until an environmental assessment is done and returned with a finding of no significant impact.

    Negotiations to mitigate the towers, now owned by Todd and Davar Gardner, could start along with that assessment this spring.

    “We did not get any indication from any landowners we need land from that they would not sell,” Walla said.

    STELLING LAYS out an aggressive and “optimistic” schedule for the proposed upgrade.

    It shows Kalispell finishing the environmental assessment, mitigating the radio towers and acquiring all land needed for the project either this year or next year.

    That would set up federal reimbursements in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

    Improvements slated for 2017 include a ramp expansion, taxiway improvements, utility work and construction of a self-serve fuel system and midrunway facility to lease to the fixed-base operator.

    “Then the runway would be built in 2018,” Walla said. “That’s probably the best-case scenario.”

    Stelling found Kalispell could afford the up-front costs and its share of the rest of the project using the Airport Tax Increment Finance District. It has about $1.5 million and will raise about $600,000 this year.

    “With the foresight of city planners and policy-makers, funding available through the TIF will provide the local resources needed to proceed with acquisition of land and the phased development proposed,” Walla said.

    Kalispell could look to the state for up to 5 percent of project costs.

    The state has airport loan and grant programs run by the Montana Department of Transportation Division of Aeronautics. That funding also is expected to be highly competitive.

    DISCUSSIONS ARE expected to touch on other airport options and the merits of the proposed B-II upgrade.

    The airport layout plan moves the runway 1,000 feet south, realigns it by 5 degrees and lengthens it from 3,600 to 4,200 feet, with enough land to eventually support a 4,700-foot runway.

    It would widen the runway and taxiway, increase their separation and enlarge runway protection zones.

    Supporters say the plan creates a safer and quieter airport, shifting traffic south and putting airplanes taking off to or landing from the north higher in the air over the city.

    A proposed heliport at the runway’s southern end could move helicopter operations farther away from homes and businesses.

    Opponents such as Scott Davis argue the proposed upgrade is not warranted and would lead to more traffic and bigger airplanes with its longer runway.

    Kalispell City Airport is used mostly by small A-1 aircraft, as well as B-I and a few B-II aircraft with larger wingspans and faster approaches. The airport currently does not meet even B-I design standards.

    OTHER OPTIONS explored included closing the airport immediately (or over five to 10 years as it deteriorates), or building a federally funded B-II facility near West Spring Creek Road and West Reserve Drive.

    Those options would require Kalispell to buy out airport leases, a cost estimated at $4.8 million today.

    They also would leave the city ineligible to be reimbursed for the $3 million it has spent toward a B-II upgrade.

    Another option would upgrade the airport to a B-I standard. Estimated to cost about $3.8 million, that would be fully funded by the city and leave it unable to recoup the $3 million it has spent.

    The path forward will be up to Kalispell City Council.

    “There’s a lot to mull over,” council member Phil Guiffrida III said of Stelling’s study and the airport in his south Kalispell ward. “I’m looking forward to some good conversation and really excited to vet this out and come to a resolution.”

    The full airport report is available on the website