Airport projects line up

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The Pikes Peak region stands to benefit in a big way from the federal economic stimulus program — both on land and in the air.

During 2009, stimulus dollars will not only speed completion of Woodmen Road improvements — freeing about $35 million for other Rural Transportation Authority projects — but also will fund $6.2 million in construction at the Colorado Springs Airport.

In fact, the airport will see more than $18 million in construction during 2009, said Aviation Director Mark Earle.

On the list:

Construction of two taxiways.

All taxiway projects on the six-year CIP list, coordinated with Federal Aviation Administration.

A reconfigured six-lane defense access road that bisects the Cresterra Business Center, with a four-lane access road to the Arrival Departure Airfield Control Group facility jointly operated by Fort Carson and Peterson Air Force Base.

Communications center upgrade and administrative office consolidation.

New interior signage.

New exterior signs.

Rehabilitation of the taxiway system serving the primary runway used by passenger planes.

A master plan update required by the FAA.

Traffic ebbs

The capital improvements will move ahead even as airport passenger traffic for the last 12 months has suffered a one-two punch.

Earle estimated traffic levels were 8 percent to 10 percent lower than the previous year, due in part to last year’s loss of Midwest Airlines and ExpressJet, and a mid-year spike in fuel prices.

Downward pressure is expected to continue through 2009, mostly because of the national recession, which has decreased the number of business and leisure air travelers. Fewer travelers mean less income for the airport.

Through February, monthly revenue showed a 7.6 percent budget shortfall for the year — the result of a 1.3 percent decrease in airline-related revenue and 3.5 percent drop in terminal retail and restaurant concessions, along with a double-digit drop in rental car fees and general aviation income.

That trend is expected to improve slightly for March and into the summer, but passenger traffic, as a whole, will lag through 2009.

The only bright spot, Earle said, has been an ongoing effort to implement strict spending controls that have kept expenditures 19.6 percent below budget.

Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant and president of Boyd Group International, predicted in the February issue of “Research Review” not only that the nation’s airlines would carry 6.6 percent fewer passengers this year than during 2008 — but that the trend would continue well into 2011 and beyond.

“Passenger counts on U.S. airlines may not return to 2008 levels again until after 2014,” he said, adding that the proposed federal economic stimulus package would do nothing to “shore up air travel demand.”

His prediction hits close to the Pikes Peak region’s budget and passenger count bull’s-eye.

“When you look at the year-over-year statistics so far, we’re on par with national trends,” Earle said, adding that January and February passenger numbers — off by 16.6 percent — are usually the lowest of the year. “Based on preliminary numbers for March, however, I think we’ll be back closer to 9 or 10 percent.”

Ready-to-go projects

The Colorado Springs Airport was granted the right to accept the stimulus funding, without fear of losing its designation as a city enterprise, when voters approved ballot issue 1D earlier this month.

If the measure had not passed, the airport would have been limited to a 25 percent cap under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Ultimately, the timing for stimulus-funded construction is the federal government’s call, and doesn’t depend on local budgets and passenger counts. In order to qualify, an airport had to agree to begin construction within 120 days of receipt of the money — and most projects must be completed within two years.

“We’re constantly building — updating facilities that have outlived their efficiency,” Earle said. “Capital (project) funding is usually derived from aviation ticket taxes, FAA funding and a users’ aviation system.”

Denver International Airport, with annual passenger traffic of about 50 million, was awarded only $12 million in stimulus money this year. Colorado Springs, in comparison, boards about 2 million travelers annually and received $6 million.

Earle couldn’t say for sure why his operation had attracted proportionately higher funding, but is content with the outcome.

“We did have a list of ‘ready-to-go’ projects, so that may have contributed to the FAA’s decision,” he said. “Where we would have been able to do $12 million worth of projects this year, (with stimulus money) we now can do $18 million. That moves one job up on the schedule. Our strategy has always been to have at least one or two ready to go — and this time it really paid off.”