State officials looking to Washington for Bradley upgrades

WASHINGTON–Connecticut airports will need an estimated $174 million in federally-funded upgrades over the next five years, according to government projections.

Whether they will actually get that money is a matter of political projection–and thus not so easy to specify.

But there will be some significant clues in the coming days, as the Senate moves forward with an $8.1 billion bill to reauthorize federal aviation programs.

The debate in Washington comes as state officials, including Gov. Dannel Malloy, consider a new, more independent governance structure for Bradley International Airport. Such a move, particularly if it comes with increased access to federal funding for airport improvements, could be a boon to Connecticut’s economy, state officials said.

“The two of them occurring simultaneously would be a really good thing for places like Bradley,” said state Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, who sits on the transportation committee and previously served as the chairman of Bradley’s board of directors. “It’s a net win.”

He and other transportation policymakers, eager to see a busier and spiffier Bradley airport, are watching the Senate debate closely.

Eric Waldron, Bradley’s administrator, said action in Congress would be a “welcome” and “positive” change, after a years-long stalemate that has left federal airport funding stagnant and injected uncertainty into his capital projects planning.

“When it’s done sort of piecemeal, it makes the funding less certain for projects so it makes planning a little more tenuous,” Waldron said.

Piecemeal is exactly how Washington has handled airport funding in recent years. Congress allowed the last Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill to lapse in 2007. Since then, lawmakers have passed a series of short-term temporary extensions to keep current programs running.

And lawmakers have left the funding for airport improvement grants flat, at $3.5 billion a year. Critics say that doesn’t come close to covering the costs of desperately needed renovations and upgrades at airports around the country.

“The civil aviation system is facing a dual crisis,” said Jeff Solsby, a spokesman for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. “Demands are exceeding the revenues generated to support them, and there’s an aging infrastructure.”

Overall, the FAA estimates that airports will need $52.2 billion over the next five years to meet basic airport infrastructure development demands, with Connecticut’s slice at about $174 million.

That figure covers just basic investments, said Sean Broderick, a spokesman for the American Association of Airport Executives.

“We’re talking safety, security and capacity,” he said. “This is just what they need to keep the airports running.”

The uncertainly in Congress has made planning at Bradley and other airports more difficult. Waldron and others said that although FAA officials have “tried to keep the pipeline going,” drafting a five-year capital improvement plan without knowing how much federal assistance will be available is tough.

“Obviously the federal reauthorization bill means an awful lot to Bradley,” agreed Albert Martin, deputy commissioner at the state’s Department of Transportation. He said there are a number of near-term improvement projects at Bradley that will require significant federal funding.

For example, the airports taxiways are due for repaving, a major undertaking.

Another big-ticket item vital to the airport’s expansion, Martin said, is the purchase of some land about two miles from the airport, where officials want to relocate two species of birds that are now in Bradley’s flight path.

“Once we acquire that land and we are able to shift those birds to that site, we then will be able to grow Bradley. We’ll be able to expand,” Martin said.

Martin and Waldron both said they’re anxious for Bradley to be well positioned as the economy rebounds, poised to take advantage of any new opportunities to increase cargo and passenger traffic.

Frantz said that will be more possible if the airport’s governance is changed. The airport, New England’s 2nd largest, is currently state-owned and operated, run by the Department of Transportation.

Malloy and others have said that governance is clunky and outmoded, and has contributed to a decline in passenger traffic in the last several years. More than any other aspect of state government, the airport is a business, Malloy said in a campaign proposal on transforming Bradley.

“State policies and bureaucratic controls have had the unintended impact of adversely affecting the profitability of the airport and its potential as a catalyst for economic development,” Malloy’s proposal states.

He called for transferring the management to an independent “Airport Authority” that would be composed of unpaid appointees who would oversee marketing, financial planning, development and other tasks.

Frantz said he hopes the government moves quickly and aggressively on the plan.

“I’ve always been convinced that the airport meets about 60 to 65 percent of its potential,” he said. “It’s in the third gear, instead of fourth of fifth.”

If it was less burdened by state bureaucracy, he said, “we could make it a much more intriguing place for travelers.” He envisions a bigger marketing department and more aggressive route development plan, along with more concessions and shopping.

All of that, of course, would require upgrades and renovations. Which is why, he and others said, the action in Washington is important.

Last year, the House and Senate could not agree on a final FAA reauthorization bill, deadlocking over federal subsidies for rural airports and other issues. It’s unclear whether the bill will fly any better this year.