Pilots and airport owners plead for more public funding, more time to spend it

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New Jersey lawmakers proposed legislation last week that would give airports more time to use state funding for upgrades because of the long time it can take for them to get local approvals.

Airport owners and pilots who testified in support of a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer), said the measure would better ensure safety in New Jersey’s declining and underfunded airline industry.

Airports now have two years to spend the grants they receive from the state Department of Transportation to improve safety. But that’s usually not enough time for them to get all the approvals, engineering work and other needs, especially if community opposition slows the process, supporters of the bill testified. Grants expire after two years.

“I have personal experience of how long it takes to get local municipal approval,” said Suzanne Nagle, co-owner of Solberg Airport in Hunterdon County. “It costs tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees plus other experts who are not covered by the grant. It’s a very tedious process, and limiting it to two years virtually nullifies the grant. It’s almost impossible to do it in two years.

John Wisniewski is a former state deputy who testified Thursday in favor of the bill before the Assembly Transportation Committee, which he chaired.

The Department of Transportation distributes $4 million a year to the state’s 40 public airports and a seaplane base to improve safety, Wisniewski said.

That’s woefully short of the $20 million annual investments that airports really need to improve security, he said. It’s also far less than the $466 million in airport improvements per new state study calls for over the next two decades.

Wisniewski, Nagle and others have called on lawmakers to increase public funding for airports, warning that sluggish state support could force some to close.

Twenty regional airports have closed in the past two decades, and another – the Flying W airport in Medford – is should close soon to be redeveloped into affordable housing, said Peter Weidhorn, owner of Eagle’s Nest Airport in Ocean County.

Airports face relentless economic stress and pressure from developers keen to buy their land, Weidhorn said.

“New Jersey’s airport system is in critical need of significant infrastructure, redevelopment, and barrier removal to ensure the continued economic growth that benefits the state through taxes, high-value job opportunities, and industry that depends on air travel to move personnel and freight,” Weidhorn said.

He added: “Tracks, like highways, wear out and it costs millions to resurface the track. Private airport owners, counties or townships do not have the funds to maintain a safe infrastructure.

Further state funding may soon arrive. Benson, who chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee, presented another bill earlier this month, it would add nearly $6.2 million to the state’s annual appropriation for airport improvements and security work, for a total of about $10.7 million.

Tracks, like highways, wear out and it costs millions to resurface the track. Private airport owners, counties or townships do not have the funds to maintain a safe infrastructure.

– Peter Weidhorn, airport owner

An aviation advocate also urged lawmakers to make the state Department of Transportation the sole authority to approve airport safety upgrades, instead of local municipalities.

“Local objections should certainly be considered and dealt with accordingly, but personal objections from a small group of people who are vocal should not constitute a veto over investments in public safety,” William said. Leavens, pilot and Vice Chairman of the Board of Mid. -Atlantic Aviation Coalition.

Benson agreed that state support for airport security should increase, but said his bill giving airports more time to use grants would help in the meantime. Committee members unanimously agreed to move the measure forward, which was also sponsored by MP Sadaf Jaffer (D-Middlesex) and MP Anthony Verrelli (D-Mercer).

Benson pointed out a shortage of airline pilots and mechanics as the reason lawmakers should back his two airport bills.

“Where do they usually start? It’s in these small airports,” he said. “So it’s not just a local or regional economic concern. It’s about creating the right pipeline for something that’s critical to our economic strength here in New Jersey.

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