Washington State Commissions 20-Year Capital Plan for Public Airport Network

Mike Schwanz
Published in: 

Most airport executives love the concept of having a solid long-term capital plan to follow, but creating one is often a significant challenge. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) recently commissioned an unprecedented investment study to help it understand the 20-year capital infrastructure needs of the state's public airport system. 

In addition to presenting information about preserving and improving airport facilities, the study identified a sizable annual gap between need and the funding available to address it. Analysis of the research subsequently helped develop a variety of solutions to address the state's portion of airport infrastructure needs.

Project: Statewide Study of Airports' Capital & Infrastructure Needs 
Client: Washington State Dept. of Transportation 
Consultant: CH2M
Approx. Cost: $350,000 for Investment Study; $300,000 for Solutions Study
Data Collection & Analysis: 2 years
Scope: All 135 public-use airports in Washington state
Key Benefits: Data to help transportation dept. allocate long-term funding; strategy options to address infrastructure challenges
Key Finding: $12 million annual gap between need & funding
More Information: wsdot.wa.gov/aviation/AirportInvestmentStudy.htm

WSDOT Aviation Director Tristan Atkins envisioned the study, and engineering consulting firm CH2M developed and executed it. Consultants studied traditional and alternative funding resources in detail and investigated system planning and project prioritization strategies to determine potential consequences for the continued underfunding of the capital preservation and infrastructure projects at public-use airports throughout the state of Washington. 

The data assembled was long overdue, says Rob Hodgman, senior aviation planner for WSDOT's Aviation Division. "All of the information we received prior to the study came in bits and pieces," Hodgman explains. "Planning for and improving infrastructure takes a long time. For long-term budget planning, three to five years is just not enough time; you can't paint a broad enough picture."

Although there are more than 540 airports and heliports in Washington, the study focused exclusively on the 135 public-use airports eligible for state funding. Knowing how and when to distribute WSDOT resources is a huge challenge, notes Hodgman. "Airports always have funding issues," he says. "Before launching this study, we did not fully understand the magnitude of need."

The previous uncertainty prompted him to ask: From an operational standpoint, can airports perform as intended in the future?

CH2M designed its research to provide the answer. "We had a couple of high-level goals," explains Mark Brower, the company's project manager for the study. "One of our main goals was to look at consequences for continuing to underfund airports."

Examining all sizes of airports was important, and researchers looked especially hard at safety issues, he notes. "There can be serious consequences to underfunding," Brower emphasizes. 

Research & Recommendations

Brower and the CH2M team divided the project into two main phases. During Phase 1, researchers gathered capital need data from the airports; investigated federal, state and local funding forecasts; and identified gaps between need and available funding. Phase 2, which was initiated at the request of the study's advisory committee, focused on developing potential solutions to increase available funding and/or reduce capital and preservations costs. (The advisory committee included members from a variety of organizations, ranging from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and Washington Seaplane Pilots Association to the Governor's Office of Aerospace and Puget Sound Regional Council to Alaska Air Group and Kenmore Air, just to name a few.)

Brower considers identifying the potential consequences of perpetuating current funding levels one of the most important elements of Phase 1. While continued underfunding would affect all airports, Non-National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems and smaller general aviation airports would be impacted most severely in terms of relative percent of projects funded, he elaborates. : (See related chart, above.)

The study estimated that WSDOT's Airport Aid Grant Program will be able to contribute approximately $1.4 million per year on average over the next 20 years. However, WSDOT's share of the overall $3.6 billion program need is more than $240 million, resulting in an average annual shortfall of more than $12 million."

Reaching this conclusion took many hours of legwork, emphasizes Brower. In the course of contacting all 135 public-use airports about their funding needs, CH2M discovered more than 5,000 projects already on the books. "We had to sort all this data," he explains. "Which projects would be completed? How long would it take? It took us several months just to collect the data."

Interpreting the information was another challenge, adds Hodgman. "The whole project involved very detailed analyses," he remarks. "To sort through all this data and arrive at an answer is a science, and a bit of an art form as well. How do you turn all this data into knowledge? How do you interpret it? Mark and his CH2M team were invaluable in helping us do this."

As the research results were assembled, WSDOT received useful input from members of the study's advisory committee, reports Hodgman, stressing their importance. "The whole purpose of state transportation is to support transportation needs of communities and businesses," he relates. "Some 36 of our 39 counties have airports. In general, the state is very forward-thinking concerning transportation. The aerospace industry is very important, with Boeing having its main plants here."

The study also included input from state lawmakers. Legislators were particularly interested in how Washington compares to other states when it comes to funding transportation, reports Brower. After examining select other states in detail, researchers ranked Washington in the middle of the pack for funding transportation. Florida, Colorado and Texas were among the leaders, according to CH2M's findings. (See chart on following page for specific funding levels.) 

"In Texas, a motor fuel tax (for planes, trucks and passengers vehicles) all goes into one pot," comments Brower. 

In Phase 2, consultants initially identified 33 ideas for solutions that included both new and revised funding programs and sources. They also presented ways to reduce costs for the 20-year need. Consultants then prioritized the following 10 core solutions and provided implementation strategies, timelines, benefits and challenges for each. 

New Funding Sources

1. Public-Private Partnerships (P3s): Implement an educational program for airport managers about attracting private funding, adhering to federal and state laws that govern P3 programs, and understanding full and partial privatizations.

2. Alternative Taxing of Operationally Oriented Uses: Implement a nominal state tax/fee on either airport parking or ground transportation for commercial airports.

3. Alternative Economic Development-Based Consumptions Tax: Implement a nominal state hotel/motel tax applicable to communities with tourism that benefits from commercial air service.

4. State-Sponsored Revolving Aviation Infrastructure Loan Fund: Establish a revolving loan fund to support revenue-generating facilities on airports that are otherwise ineligible for FAA grants.

Refinements to Current Funding Programs

5. Realign Current Transportation Revenue Allocations: Adjust allocations of revenues from motor vehicle fuel taxes and/or rental car taxes to the aeronautics account to better align with aviation generated fuel/rental car usage.

6. Reallocate Airport Leasehold Tax to the Aeronautics Account: Transfer excise taxes generated by leases on publicly owned airports from the state general fund to the aeronautics account.

7. Increase Select Aviation Tax Rates: Adjust fuel excise tax rate to align with other states.

Revisions to Current Funding Sources

8. Revise Fuel Excise Tax Exemptions: Change current fuel excise tax exemptions so the $0.11 per gallon tax is applied more uniformly.

9. Modify State Aircraft Excise Tax Program: Adjust allocation of revenues from aircraft excise taxes so 100% goes to the aeronautics account, and consider expanding taxes to apply to unmanned aircraft.

Other Nonfunding Solutions

10. Develop Toolkit for Airports: Provide airport managers with a guidebook of best management practices and other tools to facilitate greater stewardship of revenue-generating assets and help improve their bottom line, reduce operation expenses and develop new ways to address capital and preservation needs.

Hodgman predicts that the study's data and recommendations will be useful to WSDOT for years to come. "We are pretty confident that, after pulling historical funding data from the last decade, our forecasts for federal and state funding will be reasonably accurate," he says. "Local funding is more volatile. There may be a need to adjust, but we are really satisfied with the analysis. We have our work cut out for us, but I highly recommend other states look into doing a similar study." 


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