Shovel-Ready, But Not Wallet-Ready

Robert P. Wadell
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Robert P. Wadell

Robert P. Wadell, P.E., is president and CEO of Wadell Engineering, specializing in airport planning, engineering and management

consulting. As prime consultant, the firm has completed more than 450 airport projects in India, across the Pacific and throughout the United States. Wadell has a master's in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, with a specialty in airport planning and engineering.

In addition, he is a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, multi-engine pilot and former board member of the Airport Consultants Council.

It's good news that the FAA reauthorization put 74,000 people back to work and will keep the FAA funded until mid-September. Even though this is a "maintenance patch" - the 20th one since the last FAA reconstruction - it's better than no program at all.

The on-again off-again nature of multiple funding extensions, however, has a severe impact on spend rates. In July, FAA staff reported that about 20% of entitlement funds had been obligated to date, which is down from a normal 60%. In addition, $1 billion of grants had been programmed vs. the more typical $3 billion. How can this happen during an economy that looks like a stall-spin maneuver just before recovery to straight and normal flight? The current need for airport design and construction projects is great. A fix is needed!

But even with the latest FAA reauthorization in place, many small airports are not ready for projects due to lack of local funds. Communities cannot fund airport projects while terminating police officers, teachers and fire personnel. Again, a fix is needed!

Years ago, FAA capital improvement grants funded total reconstruction of airfield pavement, but not regular maintenance. Some airports consequently skipped applying necessary patches, repairs, seal coats and paint markings to old or even relatively new runways, taxiways and aprons. The strategy was to wait until the surface was literally "unbearable" so it would become eligible for reconstruction funding. Airport personnel would act surprised as they told FAA staff the pavements "recently" deteriorated. Their inside-the-beltway spin was a workaround for broken pavement and, worse yet, for a broken funding system. Eventually, maintenance became eligible, pavements were preserved, scarce funds were spent more wisely and a fix was implemented.

Currently, general aviation airports may receive up to $150,000 of non-primary entitlement grants, based on 20% of requests totaling $750,000 or more in their five-year airport capital improvement program (ACIP). After four years, the oldest unspent grant is closed.

With a 95%/5% grant and some states matching half of the local share, local costs are 2.5%. A $1 million project costs only $25,000 of local funds. Now that's a stimulus program!

The FAA also funds "design only" grants to provide a running start for future construction. This is a great job generator, but without a local match, some airports can't take their funds, and design and construction are delayed for years, when jobs and projects are needed now.

While FAA grant assurances require airports to become financially "self-sustaining," many lack sufficient sources of on-airport revenue. Currently, revenue-producing projects such as fuel farms or hangars can be funded only after all aeronautical needs have been met - including minor seal coats on remote aprons. To secure funding for a revenue project, an airport might resort to representing that all its aeronautical needs are met, only to submit an updated needs list on its next ACIP after the revenue-producing project is funded. Few airports want to proceed this way; a fix is needed!

One solution is for the FAA to fund occasional revenue-producing projects before all of an airport's aeronautical needs are met - perhaps such projects every three to five years. This would allow airports to "grow corn instead of eating corn seed." With new revenue sources, they could meet self-sustaining grant requirements and help fix the FAA grant drawdown problem. Finally, we could have timely airport projects that are both shovel-ready and wallet-ready!

Industry Insider

2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement

Giving back to the community is central to what Charlotte Douglas International Airport and its operator, the City of Charlotte Aviation Department, is about, and last year was no different. 

Throughout 2022, while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, we continued our efforts to have a positive impact on the Charlotte community. Of particular note, we spent the year sharing stories of how Connections Don't Just Happen at the Terminal - from creating homeownership and employment opportunities to supporting economic growth through small-business development and offering outreach programs to help residents understand the Airport better.

This whitepaper highlights the construction projects, initiatives, programs and events that validate Charlotte Douglas as a premier airport.

Download the whitepaper: 2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement.



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