Bennington airport officials upset with state over budgets, plans
BENNINGTON — Concern is mounting in some quarters over Vermont's aviation program and the schedule for airport upgrade projects — especially those that would support businesses based at state-owned facilities.
Business owners at the Morse State Airport in Bennington were critical in early October of what they saw as a scarcity of information from the state concerning plans for a $4 million runway reconstruction project set for 2018, and concerning smaller improvements that have been pushed back on the project schedule.
Responding to those concerns, three Agency of Transportation aviation officials met Monday with the Bennington Airport Committee to discuss a range of aviation issues.
"We are committed to this airport," said Dan Delabruere, director of the newly created Rail and Aviation Bureau, told committee members at one point. "We want to be able to serve you."
Criticism of the state program has been building around the state, according to Guy Rouelle, who led the Agency of Transportation's aviation division for six years before leaving in June.
Rouelle now heads the newly formed Vermont Aviation Management Association, an advocacy group for the aviation industry in the state. He said this week that "there is concern all across Vermont's airports" about restructuring changes within the aviation division under the administration of Gov. Phil Scott, and about agency funding levels and airport projects that apparently have been delayed.
The principal issues, he said, have been a lack of transparency about the future of the aviation program, state budget reductions and the status of projects that were in the planning pipeline.
There is also frustration that the state "seems to be unilaterally making decisions without consulting people around the [affected] airports," Rouelle said.
"They haven't communicated very well," he said, adding that people in the industry would like to hear "what the vision for aviation is," and what changes have been made or are being considered to the aviation budget.
Trini Brassard, director of Policy, Planning and Intermodal Development with the AOT, which oversees the aviation program, said that the aviation division has been restructured but staffing levels have remained the same.
She said on Monday in Bennington that the future funding picture for both the aviation budget and planned airport projects remains unclear but both should come into focus over the next two months.
Addressing budget cuts this fiscal year, Brassard said an airport facilities line item was reduced by $300,000 statewide as part of an overall reduction to deal with a state revenue shortfall, but that no further cuts have been made.
The figures for the governor's next state budget won't be final until Scott approves a spending plan and submits his overall budget to the Legislature in January, she said.
She also said a recent meeting with Federal Aviation Administration officials had to be cancelled due to illness among FAA employees but will be rescheduled within the next month. Since the federal government provides 90 percent funding for major airport projects like the Bennington runway reconstruction, input from the FAA is crucial to scheduling for airport projects, she said.
Brassard added that the FAA provides funding on a regional basis, not by state, and also is revising some of its priorities for airport projects. In recent years, she said, Vermont has done well when applying for project funding under the former priority guidelines, and because it was prepared to apply for specific projects, but greater competition for federal dollars regionwide is expected in future budget years.
As for the FAA's role, Rouelle said federal funding for projects already was in place for the next year before he left the state agency. He said hopes to learn whether the state is delaying improvements at airports for state budgetary reasons and what has gone into those decisions.
While managing the aviation program, Rouelle said he typically had to "fight tooth and nail" for funding because highway projects always were given a higher priority. He's now concerned funding levels for aviation will decline, allowing infrastructure to deteriorate further.
Rouelle said he decided to retire from the state in June, "because I had done everything I thought I could do from the state and felt I needed to work from the outside, in the private sector, for the airports."
He said he knows many people at local airports around Vermont, a number of whom have joined the association he leads, and he has heard their concerns. After a five-year period when more than $73 million in project funding allocated or earmarked for state airports, he said he hopes that level of support can be maintained.
He said Vermont went through a period during the 1990s when maintenance and upgrade projects were not a priority, and some in the industry believe the same situation is developing again. Rouelle noted that during that period, the aviation division also was combined with the agency's rail division, as it has been once again.
Providing examples of the impact of funding choices on the airports and businesses there, Rouelle said an apparent delay for a runway extension project proposed for the Morrisville-Stowe State Airport would have an impact on businesses there, as will delays in replacing a "undersized" fuel farm facility at the Bennington airport.
Some projects at community airports apparently "have been pushed two or three years down the road," he said.
Rouelle said people who still work for the state have told him figuratively that, because of budget cuts, they now have "to make decisions between fixing one leaky roof and another leaky roof."
Despite years of increasing project funding, he said, runways, airport buildings and other aspects of the facilities still require significant and sustained attention.
Also attending the meeting at Morse Airport in Bennington was Christopher Beitzel, airport manager at Rutland-Southern Vermont Regional Airport.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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