Grants fund improvements for local airports
LAKE COUNTY– The Montana Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Board has awarded the Polson, St. Ignatius and Ronan airports grant funds that will be used to improve airport runways.
“We do everything we possibly can to extend the life of our runways,” said Rick Newman, chair of the Lake County Joint Airport Board. The board oversees the St. Ignatius, Ronan and Polson airports.
The maintenance projects, funded by the grants, save costs in the long run, Newman said. Harsh winters and regular use break down runways, causing them to crack and their markings to fade. Without regular maintenance, the runways would have to be replaced more frequently to the tune of several million dollars.
Newman estimates that his board’s attention to regular maintenance buys the runways 20 to 40 more years of life. The St. Ignatius runway was installed in the 1970s but it’s still functional thanks to rigorous maintenance.
The money the airports save by extending the life of their runways goes right into the pockets of Lake County residents by way of tax. “This is all savings for Lake County taxpayers,” Newman said. “Now people won’t have to fork out that money.”
The Ronan and Polson airports are funded by the Federal Aviation Administration. Those airports can apply for funds from the FAA for improvement projects. If the applications are approved the FAA pays for 90 percent of the cost and the airport board fund the remaining 10 percent of the cost. The airports will use the grants from the state aeronautics board to offset part of that remaining 10 percent.
This year there were more grant funds available to airports across the state thanks to a bill that passed the Montana legislature in 2019 and restructured taxes on airplane fuel to make more grant funds available. The costs that aren’t covered by state or federal grants are paid by the county, which gets its funds from local taxes.
In Polson, the ground beneath part of the runway has settled, creating dips in the paved surface. The airport received a grant for just over $8,000 to complete the project. Trey Moran, a Polson representative to the county airport board, said the improvement would make the most difference to those flying larger airplanes. Small planes are usually going fairly slow when they reach the uneven pavement, so rough terrain has a small impact. Large airplanes can get bounced around during landing.
Newman requested funds from the aeronautics board to support five different items that the Ronan airport needed. He received support for four of the five, including the replacement of markings on the pavement and putting the final touches on the airport’s master plan. The airport was awarded $12,452.
While St. Ignatius is the smallest airport in the county, it got the largest state grant. Because St. Ignatius airport is smaller than the others, it does not qualify for funding from the FAA. All funding for the St. Ignatius airport comes from the county or local donations. The runway needs to have cracks sealed and markings repainted. The aeronautics board agreed to fund the full cost of the project at $77,399. Having a full project funded without requiring the airport to provide a match is rare, Newman said.
Newman said he generally tries to use the funds he has available to make improvements to the airports, but it’s not always enough to keep things operating smoothly. He said these aeronautics grants will make a big difference for the airports
“We try to take care of everything here the best we can and eventually you need help so they help us out,” he said.
The funds will be distributed on July 1. The projects will be completed this summer. Those who wish to support the St. Ignatius airport can attend the annual fly-in at the airport on the third Sunday in July.