Kentucky's Airports: Conduit to Expansion
By Col Steve Parker
Kentucky boasts 59 public airports. Though the Kentucky Department of Aviation (KDA) plays a role in all of them, we play a primary role in the maintenance of our 53 general aviation (GA) airports. For those Kentuckians that seldom travel by air, the value to our state of these facilities may be overlooked. However, a vibrant and well-maintained regional airport system is essential to our state's economic development. Corporate executives are responsible for expansive business interests with a broad geographic footprint. These executives need to be able to check on their facilities efficiently, often traveling to more than one facility per day. Because of that requirement, many businesses are unlikely to expand to a region unless they can access it by air.
KDA finances the maintenance of the commonwealth's GA airports via a jet fuel tax. In prior years, these funds (approximately $8.2 million per year) only allowed us to do "Band-Aid" repairs at our airports, such as resurfacing, maintaining lighting systems, or patching flaws on aprons and taxiways. They did not allow for more in depth repairs or upgrades.
By 2015, this situation had become critical as budget cuts over the past 10 years limited GA improvement projects. The cost of those deferred projects was clearly identified by a 2014/2015 pavement analysis. The results of that analysis identified over $70 million in essential asphalt maintenance at the state's GA airports. Thankfully, in the 2017 and 2018 budget years, KDA was allotted an additional $10 million for airport improvements. Why is this important?
Somewhere along your daily commute, you probably encounter a familiar pothole or flaw in the pavement. Though they may be uneventful on your commute, pavement flaws such as these can be dangerous on a runway. Aircraft touch down at a high rate of speed, making small cracks or flaws potentially damaging. Likewise, a rough or dangerous landing of the aforementioned corporate aircraft due to runway flaws results in a negative first impression of the region.
The safety of travelers at our airports was a primary focus of KDA as we allocated money from the state budget in 2017 and 2018. Six major pavement rehabilitation projects were completed at airports with the most pressing needs. Those projects included full asphalt overlays on the runways at Big Sandy Regional, Tompkinsville-Monroe County, West Liberty, and Russellville-Logan County, as well as aircraft parking maintenance at Wendell H. Ford Regional Airport in Hazard, and some additional maintenance at the Morehead-Rowan County Airport. By year-end we expect to complete projects at the Williamsburg-Whitley County Airport, Sturgis Municipal Airport, Harlan Airport, and Georgetown-Scott County Regional Airport. At least 15 more projects are planned for fiscal year 2018.
Governor Bevin was instrumental in securing this funding precisely because he recognizes that our GA airport system is essential for continued economic development and expansion. These airports are particularly beneficial in eastern Kentucky where mountain roads make travel across that region more time consuming and less efficient. This additional money from the general fund freed up the fuel tax dollars to be used for additional improvement projects that otherwise would not have been possible.
These include a statewide obstruction analysis. Obstructions such as trees not on airport property can grow to a height that is problematic for aircraft on approach. In these cases, an easement must be purchased so that the tree can be removed. This study will allow KDA to ensure that any obstructions are identified and removed.
The fuel tax monies have also been able to fund major lighting system replacements, airport marking improvement projects, and a terminal building renovation. The airport facilities are the first thing air travelers see upon disembarking in Kentucky. Our airports should not have antiquated or poorly maintained terminal buildings.
Kentucky's Department of Aviation, under the leadership of Governor Bevin, is determined to do our part to usher in a new era of economic growth in our commonwealth. We would also like to express our gratitude to the General Assembly for their support of our efforts.
Col Steve Parker is Commissioner of Kentucky's Department of Aviation