RIAC and the town discuss airport opportunities

Sat, 02/01/2020 - 11:30am
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Several Block Island representatives met with officials from the Rhode Island Airport Corporation on the mainland to help ensure that several pressing issues concerning the airport, such as capital improvement projects and an injunction that prevents the state from doing some necessary tree trimming at the Westerly Airport, stay on track.

Town Manager Jim Kern, councilor Sven Risom, and Henry duPont, of the Block Island State Airport Stakeholders group, met with five senior officials from RIAC at their Warwick offices on Friday, Jan. 24.

duPont, in a letter to RIAC Senior Vice President Christine Vitt, dated Jan. 24, outlined the above topics, as well as a discussion on revenue-producing opportunities at the airport, that he had hoped to discuss at the meeting.

After the meeting, duPont told The Block Island Times that the RIAC team discussed what opportunities the town and RIAC could work collaboratively on at two state-owned properties located adjacent to the airport that could be the source of new revenue duPont said the RIAC team wondered if the town would allow boat storage, as an example.

The reason is that the Block Island State Airport (BID) is running in the red. According to RIAC’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget, Block Island is expected to generate $60,300 in revenue in the current fiscal year. With operating expenses tagged at $735,100, this means that the Block Island Airport is expected to lose $674,800 this fiscal year. Adding $160,000 in for its annual debt service, Block Island Airport will have a revenue shortfall of about $834,000.

In his letter to Vitt dated Jan. 24, duPont stated that “Block Island should not be looking for non-aviation sources of revenue when our airport has only half of the aviation services available at all the other state airports.”

duPont said the conversation witht the RIAC officials did address those issues as to what could be done for the airport, such as restoring funding to improve and expand the current footprint of the airport apron and to create new sources of aviation-related revenue.

The priority for duPont was the condition of the airport’s apron.

In his letter to RIAC, duPont said that “BID was funded for a $4.3 million airport parking apron improvement in the state FY 2018 CIP budget and the project was never started. We note that these funds were not included in the state’s FY 2019 budget… Block Island needs to get the full $4.3 million project funding restored, the project presented to the [Federal Aviation Administration] for a 90 percent project funding match, and the project construction underway.”

The application deadline for FAA funding is up in May, duPont said, and duPont said the RIAC officials said they did not have time to complete a complicated application for those funds this year but would do so next year. This, duPont said, meant that the matching funds would not arrive until late 2021.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. You’ve got four months’” to apply this year, said duPont. He said expanding the 30,000 square foot apron could lead to parking for up to 30 more planes, which would increase landing fees at the airport. He said expanding the apron was identified as a critical need as far back as 2001.

duPont said he was pushing the town to ensure that the FAA funds are applied for this year. “They’ve already done the engineering,” said duPont, who noted that the apron is snaked with quick-fix remedies to the many cracks in the asphalt.

Another possible revenue stream for the airport is to improve parking services and to provide fuel sales at the airport.

There is no charge for parking at the airport, and some of the vehicles have been parked there for the long-term. duPont said that RIAC will be visiting the island on Feb. 7 with a company that runs parking lots on the mainland for an inspection.

“They can double the parking there, but they would have to improve it, too,” said duPont. Improving its efficiency could mean installing security lighting and fencing, and putting in a gate to collect fees. duPont said the challenge there is that the other smaller general aviation airports in the state do not charge for parking.

“We want to improve that, but to improve that fairly,” said duPont. “Charge the people who park there for six months but not the people who use the airport daily.”

As for fuel sales, duPont, in his letter, said the Block Island Airport “does not have the aviation revenue-generating services that all the other state airports have. Namely, the availability of AVGAS and hangar rental space. The installation of a self-serve AVGAS dispenser will generate more revenue than landing fees, tiedown fees, and parking fees together. The self-serve unit, exactly like the one in Westerly and Newport, are safe and may be eligible for federal funds.”

As for the lawsuit filed by some neighbors in Westerly that has prevented the state from trimming trees on neighboring private properties, duPont said he told the RIAC representatives that they “need to get that back on track.” Some tall trees surrounding the airport have reduced the amount of landing space on the Westerly runways, which some have said could lead to safety issues.

“This is a major transportation hub in southern Rhode Island and it’s partially closed,” duPont said.

In his letter, duPont said, “The suspension of runway-approach tree trimming… has resulted in displaced runway thresholds and the cancelation of night instrument approaches to the airport. RIAC needs to aggressively defend itself from the restraining order and better promote the airport as an essential transportation resource for all of southern Rhode Island.”

There have also been water supply issues at the airport due to the performance of an old well. Water at the airport has been interrupted several times throughout last year, with one outage lasting almost a week.

Councilor Risom said that a fire hydrant located on Connecticut Avenue not far from the Boy Scout camp could hook the airport into the town’s water system. “This would get them off that well,” said duPont.

As for RIAC, “We considered the meeting positive and productive, very positive from our standpoint,” said John Goodman, Director of Media and Public Relations for RIAC.

duPont said there would be an opportunity to talk about these issues again when RIAC officials visit the airport to assess the parking opportunities on Feb. 6.