Lauren Rabaino

Two new construction projects that will lay the groundwork for future renovations at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport are underway, thanks to two recent grants.

“It’s just kind of a preparation for our future,” said Assistant Airport Director Craig Piper. “It’s for the future terminal and the future complex.”

A $2.9 million federal grant was awarded to the airport earlier this year to aid in the construction of the Eastside Access project, a road that when completed, will loop around a planned parking area and will provide access to commercial areas on the eastern side of the airport.

The latest project, the Aero Drive realignment project, is intended to move the intersection where Aero Drive meets Broad Street about an eighth of a mile south in order to line up the access road with Spitfire Lane on the opposite side of Broad Street.

“It services and improves the flow of the current terminal and ideally, improves the parking,” Piper said of the Aero Drive project.

Airport officials sought approval from the county board of supervisors to apply for the Aero Drive grant in July and then recieved approval to start the bidding process with contractors on August 21. The grant was awarded in September.

Though the grants will pay for a significant portion of the projects, the airport must be able to pay for a certain percentage of matching funds to be eligible.

“The FAA funds 95 percent, we have to come up with a 5 percent match,” Piper said.

So for the Aero Drive project, the airport had to match in the range of $100,000 to the $1.9 million grant awarded.

One of the misconceptions Piper said some people have about airport spending in San Luis Obispo is that taxpayer money goes toward the funding of projects.

“We do not get money from property taxes (and) income taxes,” Piper said. “If you don’t use the airport, if you don’t buy an airline ticket then you’re not paying for the airport.”

The airport operates fiscally independent of the county’s general fund – something it has done since 1992 – and relies on what are called passenger fee charges (PFC) and FAA grants for its project funding.

Piper said federal funding is made available in two ways; through entitlements and discretionary funds.

Entitlement funds are collected through fees that accompany the purchase of an airline ticket. Discretionary funds are those that airports in a particular region of the country must compete for.

“We’re in competition with other airports (so) if it doesn’t come to us, it’s going to go to another airport,” Piper said of the discretionary funds.

The other airports that San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport competes with could be located anywhere in the Pacific Western Region, which is comprised of Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and California.

With each grant, “we pull money into our local economy rather than that money going to some other area economy,” Piper said.

Pooling that money into projects for the airport helps to develop infrastructure and “enhances the ability to attract airlines,” says Piper.

Airline service in San Luis Obispo and the PFCs they generate, as well as the need to provide adequate facilities to airlines and commercial carriers, are vital to San Luis Obispo County’s economy.

“The functionality of the airport affects Cal Poly, property values and the community as a whole,” said Mike Manchak, president and CEO of Economic Vitality Corporation.

EVC is a non-profit corporation based in San Luis Obispo County that aims to “start and expand business, and create jobs,” according to Manchak.

The company has been commissioned to conduct a passenger demand analysis for the San Luis Obispo airport and the information they receive from the study is used to provide data that can potentially “entice airlines,” Manchak said.

Though the current projects are stepping stones toward larger projects such as a new terminal and larger commercial and passenger aircraft ramps, Manchak said they are not necessarily driving points to attracting airlines to the area but rather of a basic infrastructure update.

The Aero Drive project, for example, is also designed to improve safety conditions at its intersection with Broad Street.

“People have been killed at that intersection,” Manchak said. “(The projects) as a whole may not directly be related to attracting the airlines,” he said. “They assume we have proper roads and infrastructure.”

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