How the FAA gets communities addicted to airport grants

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)

  • Erik Petersen

    Yeah, you’re making an observation that’s sympathetic to a perspective of small / limited government there Bob.

    • I’m stating facts about how the grants work . This is how they work.

      • Erik Petersen

        I know you are doing exactly that.

        BTW, whats the deal with area around LE airport?….. They are doing some major redo roadwork as houses go up there. It seems both a curiousity and an oddity how they are trying to make that all work with the houses and the airport.

        • They’re moving Stillwater Blvd and Manning Avenue intersection. There’s also a plan to lengthen one of the runways at LE and relocated 30th Street but I’m not sure what the status of that is.

          It’s only a matter of time before the people who moved into a soybean field next to the airport start complaining about the airport next door.

          Anyway, PiPress had a good article on the construction.

          • Erik Petersen

            That soybean field was a heckuva an agate field when I was growing up

          • Tim Christman

            I’m in the odd position of being one of the people that rented a hangar at Silver Bay, and I’m based at Lake Elmo. It disappoints me to see the Silver Bay airport essentially abandoned, but ultimately it is not surprising given the limited traffic there. The town clearly has other priorities to meet with a declining tax and employment base.

            I think it becomes a question of policy. Do we wish to maintain rural general aviation airports so that the system remains usable (not just for hobby pilots, but for itinerant traffic and emergency services), or do we let it implode? I think most people are indifferent and fail to realize that the cadre of commercial pilots who fly with the big carriers all started out at airports not unlike Silver Bay.

            By contrast, LE is a busy reliever airport for piston singles and still there is tremendous hostility to what amounts to a modest improvement in the runway configuration. At LE, one of the runways is at the end of its pavement life, and both are functionally obsolete based on evolving standards. To hear those who oppose any modification of the airport, one would think that LE is going to become a light (or even heavy) jet transport aircraft terminal. Bunk. This is compounded by what is clearly incompatible use in the surrounding area, courtesy of the adjacent city government.

            Perhaps the public perception will change when electric light aircraft become more prevalent for services such as air taxi or excursions. I suspect that some of the general aviation airports will experience some degree of a renaissance at that point as they become natural terminals for those uses in addition to their useful role as training facilities for budding pilots.

          • Tim Christman

            Many thanks!

  • Guest

    Not a real problem. Here is tax payer money, they expect to get value for it.

  • jon

    “The federally obligated land is dedicated to aviation purposes”

    Loophole idea… turn it into a drone flying space…

    • I’ll be there with my DJI Spark if they do!

  • What exactly is Mayor Johnson’s problem with keeping an airport open, except that it represents some kind of fiscal “addiction”? Mining industry subsidies are similar. I wonder what his constituents would say about him not wanting mining industry subsidies, in an area that is economically dependent on mining, because “it’s addictive”?

    • Erik Petersen

      I quibble: I’m not sure there are any mines in Lake County

      • Jerry

        Silver Bay was literally founded as a company town by a iron mining company.

        • Erik Petersen

          I know, but I’m a literalist. They don’t mine anything in Silver Bay. Its a port.

          • That’s why I wrote “mining industry”. There are peripherals associated with extracting minerals from the ground … like, transporting those minerals. E.g., the “steel industry” is not just built on smelting ores, either. Same with the “auto industry”; not just about assembling motor vehicles.

      • Mining is the second largest employer in Silver Bay, after “health care and social assistance”:

  • Jeremiah Mitchell

    Well there are 12 hangers rented for aircraft and 7 home based. Not 5! I am one of the pilots that is stuck here. And I also work for the city of silver bay.

    • Just curious so I wonder how many hours are on each of those planes in the last year. My airport and all the hangers are rented but very few of them have axtive airplanes in and out of them

      • Jeremiah Mitchell

        7 planes are used weekly. 6 are used for Transportation.

        • What are your options if they close it?

          • Jeremiah Mitchell

            No clue as of right now we would have to take are planes apart and transport them some where. But being up on the north shore there are no hangers from duluth to Canada to ely.

          • That stinks.