How the FAA gets communities addicted to airport grants

Glenn Chatfield. Used with permission

The hardly-used Silver Bay, Minn., airport is providing a good glimpse into the problem with grant money dangled by the federal government.

Only five planes are hangared at the airport, which was recently closed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s aeronautics division because the runway wasn’t kept up.

What do you do with a closed airport? Maybe not much, thanks to the strings attached to Federal Aviation Administration grants.

As noted in this space in the past, aviation interests encourage local communities to accept the airport improvement money partly because — often unbeknownst to the local politicians — it makes it harder for communities to close their airports.

That’s what the city council in Silver Bay is finding out, the Duluth News Tribune reported today.

Over the years, Silver Bay has accepted grants totaling more than $2 million from the FAA and MnDOT. The grants include “grant assurances” from Silver Bay that stipulate the city keeps the airport in good repair for a specific time frame after the grant is awarded.

If the airport is closed, Peek estimates Silver Bay could owe approximately $170,000 based on assurances that haven’t expired yet. Isackson estimated the bill for MnDOT to be around $10,000.

The federally obligated land is dedicated to aviation purposes, so Silver Bay would have to repay the fair-market value of the land if it closes the airport. Estimating the fair-market value of the land makes the total owed by the city for closing the airport difficult to ascertain.

The city could opt to repave the runway and reopen the airport. The News Tribune says that would cost about $2.5 million.

The FAA would pay for all of it. In exchange, the city has to keep the airport open for the 20-year life of the runway.

Silver Bay Mayor Scott Johnson likened the grants to a cocaine addiction.

More aviation: Those who live near airport enjoy prime seats for air show (Eau Claire Leader-Telegram)