Raleigh-Durham International Airport officials say a bill filed at the N.C. General Assembly could help pay for a $305 million project to rebuild its longest runway, which is needed to continue to accommodate and attract new international flights.
Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican from Brunswick County and chair of the Senate Rules Committee, filed Senate Bill 351 that would allocate $100 million for runway improvements at RDU over two years, starting July 1.
The money would come from a short-term motor vehicle lease and rental tax, which generates about $65 million per year. That money currently goes into the general fund, but Rabon’s bill would instead put it into the dwindling Highway Fund, he said.
“The money for these short-term leases – it’s really money that is generated by airports and by transportation, and it should go back in transportation,” he said. “I think it would just do a world of good.”
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Rabon said he initially included RDU in the bill because he knew it “desperately” needs a longer runway to accommodate international flights, and he wanted to find a way to facilitate that.
But he said he has some changes he hopes to make to the bill later this session to make it an ongoing source of revenue for projects needed at airports statewide, “so the whole state benefits not just one individual.”
“Airports really, really have a huge return on investment as far as transportation and state dollars that we put in,” Rabon said.
The state’s Highway Fund has provided money to airports since 2006 but only for general aviation airports. All publicly-owned airports have been eligible to receive capital project funding from the state’s Highway Trust Fund since 2015.
Under existing state funding sources, RDU gets $500,000 per year, said Michael Landguth, the airport’s president and CEO. “Half a million dollars doesn’t go very far,” he said.
Kristie VanAuken, RDU’s vice president of communications and community affairs, said Rabon’s bill is a step in the right direction, particularly, she said, since “airport funding is broken at the federal level.”
“We don’t feel tremendously optimistic about new tools at the federal level at this point,” she said. “But we’re not going to quit trying.”
Talks about airport funding
State funding is just one element needed for RDU to rebuild its runway. RDU is working on a funding model that officials hope to release this summer that would lay out how the runway would be paid for. This could include state or federal funding or airport revenues, such as parking and landing fees.
RDU officials have recently been in talks with some of the state’s congressional representatives about receiving more federal money. Staff said for every dollar the airport has paid into the Federal Airport Improvement Program, it has gotten back about 3.7 cents. That’s because the $20 billion needed by U.S. airports each year is significantly more than the funding available through federal programs, according to a report by Airports Council International – North America, an association representing airport owners and operators.
Also, under federal rules, RDU must forgo 75 percent of the airport improvement program money it is entitled to because it collects a $4.50 facility charge from every passenger who boards a plane there. Airport officials nationwide are urging Congress to repeal that rule as well as lift the $4.50 cap on passenger facility charges, which haven’t been raised since 2000.
“As we start to look at the taxes the citizens of this region are paying into the Federal Airport Improvement Program versus what we are getting back, I don’t believe that it’s fair and equitable,” Landguth said. “When we are coming forward with a program like a runway, it should be a number one program that should be funded appropriately ... We’ve paid into the system for years, and it’s time to get our fair funding back.”
RDU’s runway will need to be rebuilt in the next few years before it reaches the end of its useful life. It will be built parallel to the existing 10,000-foot runway which is on the western side of the airport. There is no set timeline for when construction will begin or how long it will take, at least until RDU receives approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to RDU staff.
If the useful life of the runway were to end before a new one is built, the airport would have only one commercial runway, and at 7,500 feet, it isn’t long enough to accommodate trans-Atlantic or trans-continental flights. A new runway also would be needed if the airport hopes to attract a flight to China.
“We can’t wait to get started on this because the runway life is short,” VanAuken said. “We simply can’t wait. We have to get moving.”
While RDU’s runway may be the most pressing aviation project across the state, some of the more than 70 other publicly-owned airports in North Carolina also could benefit from a source of funding for capital projects.
In the last seven years, Triangle North Executive Airport in Louisburg has grown from having 80 aircraft based there to 130, said Steve Merritt, airport manager. The airport is one of several in the area, including Raleigh Executive Jetport in Sanford and Johnston County Airport, that provide relief to RDU.
“They’re growing, and we’re growing,” Merritt said. “We are only restricted by the pot of money we can get.”
Triangle North Executive Airport recently completed a $2 million project to increase capacity for more corporate customers. There also are plans to extend the runway from 5,500 to 6,500 feet and strengthen it to accommodate heavier jets with an anticipated $11 million state grant. The grant also would help make more land available for infrastructure.
“If there is a way to get more money for the airport system, I would absolutely be in favor of that,” Merritt said. “I don’t think we could have too much money. The needs are almost limitless.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon