State cuts may mean no airport expansion

When legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty raided an airport fund to help solve the state’s budget deficit, they may have forced St. Cloud and other cities to cancel plans to expand airport terminals this summer.

St. Cloud officials learned Monday that a $15 million state airport fund had been drained as part of $355 million in state spending cuts. The move came as lawmakers sought to eliminate a $935 million budget deficit.

That forced the City Council on Monday to postpone awarding a $4.75 million bid to expand the commercial aviation terminal at St. Cloud Regional Airport, said Bill Towle, airport director.

“It’s not just us. Duluth and Rochester were planning on terminal improvements this year, too,” he said. “In our case, we were expecting $1.25 million from that fund, which would leverage another $3 million in federal dollars. Now, that’s all jeopardized.”

The expansion would have almost doubled the size of the 10,000-square-foot terminal.

The expansion is intended to add secure passenger boarding space, a better-designed security checkpoint and an office for the Transportation Security Administration, which inspects passengers and baggage before boarding.

Scheduled to begin in early June, the expansion is expected to improve the airport’s ability to handle larger airplanes and help efforts to recruit a second airline, Towle said.

Towle said he has been in touch with Pawlenty’s staff. He hopes for a solution before the end of the week, because of construction deadlines.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said Pawlenty’s office “is aware of the situation facing smaller airports.”

Pawlenty’s Chief of Staff Matt Kramer is working with the Department of Employment and Economic Development and the Department of Transportation to find money to “backfill” the fund, McClung said.

“The governor had more spending he wanted put back into the budget and it was his proposal,” Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, said. “We assumed all along that we’d have to try to fix it next session. It’s hard to see what the Legislature would be able to do now that we’re done, so if he can find the money administratively, that would be best.”

Money for the fund comes from a variety of user fees, including an airplane fuel tax, airplane registration fees and a property tax on airline equipment. The money is given back to airports for capital improvements, Towle said.

If the money is not restored, St. Cloud would have to find another way to leverage the federal dollars, which include $1.2 million in congressional earmarks that must be spent before the end of the year, he said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., criticized the state’s decision in a news release.

“This $15 million cut was made from the trust fund with no consideration for paying this money back in the future. This was not a loan. It was a raid on a fund that was built up to keep Minnesota’s economy strong,” the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said. “This cut is also shortsighted when it comes to planning for Minnesota’s future. Airport improvements have helped stimulate economic growth across the state, particularly in rural Minnesota.”

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