The Federal Aviation Administration is doling out the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law airport funds one small project at a time.
In the first round of competitive grant funding, unveiled July 7, the FAA divvied up $1 billion over 85 airports across the country. The largest grant was $62 million to Boston Logan for roadway improvements, and the smallest $36,000 to the Augusta, Kan., airport to update the ventilation system in its terminal. Another $1 billion of the $5 billion allocated to competitive airport grants will be awarded annually for the next four years, or through 2026.
“Americans deserve modern airports that meet the needs of their families and growing passenger demand. Funded through President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, today’s grants will improve airport terminals,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.
But executives at many large airports — the ones that serve the majority of U.S. flyers and are often the most in need of infrastructure improvements — do not see the FAA’s grant program as the great success it’s sold as by administration officials. While they are thankful for the funds, many have raised concerns about the size of the grants that, in the tens-of-millions-of-dollars, represent just downpayment on most large airport infrastructure projects rather than a real funding game changer.
Take, for example, Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, the ninth busiest in the U.S. in 2021. Earlier this year, the airport decided to move forward with at least two major projects based on the availability of federal infrastructure law funds: a roughly $260 million new north-south taxiway on the western end of the airport, and a roughly $300 million third concourse on Terminal 3. The taxiway is funded with formula funds from the law, while the airport applied for a grant for the concourse.
“Once you’re pregnant and we decide to move forward with this project, we don’t know that the FAA is going to give us continued funding through that five-year cycle or whether they’re going to try to spread the wealth to other airports. There is some risk for airports in this,” City of Phoenix Director of Aviation Services Chad Makovsky said in a May interview. He added that “the odds of me getting more than $5 million probably would be a surprise to us.”
The CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), Jack Potter, has raised similar concerns. The operator moved forward with plans for a $500-800 million new concourse at Washington Dulles airport to replace an outdated and obsolete facility following the passage of the infrastructure law. However, Potter has said that they could only really expect “about $125 to $150 million per airport” in funding.
MWAA received a $49.6 million grant for the Dulles project, which represents at most 10 percent of the total estimated cost. Phoenix was not awarded funds this year.
“The incredible demand for this first $1 billion in grants illustrates just how much more help airports need to finance critical terminal projects,” Airports Council International (ACI) North America CEO Kevin Burke said in a statement. The FAA received more than 650 applications totaling more than $14 billion for the $1 billion available in this round of grants.
The trade group will “continue to work closely with our federal partners to secure additional funding for these critical infrastructure projects,” Burke added.
In addition to Augusta and Boston, other grant recipients include: $60 million to Denver for its over-budget terminal improvement project; $50 million to Orlando for its South Terminal project; $20 million to Hartford for a baggage system expansion; $10 million to Huntsville, Ala., to renovate its terminal; and $960,000 to Boise to replace a skylight and boiler in its terminal.