Pilots, airport owners plead for expanded state funding, more time to spend it

By: - June 13, 2022 7:07 am

Airplanes sit parked at the Trenton-Mercer Airport. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey lawmakers advanced legislation last week that would give airports more time to use state funding for improvements because of the lengthy period it can take them to secure 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 shrinking and underfunded airline industry.

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

“I have personal experience in 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 that are not covered under the grant. It’s a very tedious process, and limiting it to two years pretty much negates the grant. It’s almost impossible to do it in two years.”

John Wisniewski is a former state assemblyman who testified Thursday in support of the bill before the Assembly’s transportation committee, which he used to chair.

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

That’s woefully short of the $20 million annual investment airports really need to improve safety, he said. It’s also significantly lower than the $466 million in airport improvements a new state study calls for over the next two decades.

Wisniewski, Nagle, and others called on lawmakers to increase state funding for airports, warning that stagnant 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 expected to close soon to be redeveloped into affordable housing, said Peter Weidhorn, owner of Eagle’s Nest Airport in Ocean County.

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

“The New Jersey airport system is in critical need of significant infrastructure, redevelopment, and obstruction elimination to ensure the continued economic growth that benefits the state through tax dollars, high-value employment opportunities, and industry that relies on air transportation to move personnel and freight,” Weidhorn said.

He added: “Runways, like highways, wear out, and it costs millions to resurface the runway. Private airport owners, counties, or townships don’t have the funds to maintain safe infrastructure.”

More state funding could come soon. Benson, who chairs the Assembly’s transportation committee, introduced another bill earlier this month that would add almost $6.2 million to the state’s annual appropriation for airport improvement and safety work, to a total of about $10.7 million.

Runways, like highways, wear out, and it costs millions to resurface the runway. Private airport owners, counties, or townships don’t have the funds to maintain safe infrastructure.

– Peter Weidhorn, airport owner

One aviation advocate also urged lawmakers to make the state Department of Transportation the sole authority tasked with approving airport safety improvements, instead of local municipalities.

“Local objections certainly should be taken into consideration and dealt with accordingly, but personal objections by a small and vocal group of people should not be veto power over investments in public safety,” said William Leavens, a pilot and board vice president of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Coalition.

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

Benson pointed to a shortage of pilots and airline mechanics as a reason why lawmakers should support both of his airport bills.

“Where do they usually get their start? It’s at these smaller airports,” he said. “So this is not just a local or regional economic concern. This is about creating the right pipeline for something that is essential for our economic strength here in New Jersey.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.