Surprise! Airports are best value with grants


Let’s just tackle the Walker County Airport-Bevill Field - and Facebook. Apparently we need a little seminar to set some things straight. 

Recently we did a bread-and-butter commission story where we mentioned that the commission had approved some work for the airport. You would have thought from the reactions from Facebook they were building the Spruce Goose and triple charging the Pentagon for every screw. Oh, how they are wasting the money at the airport! Oh, how all of that could go for roads! Nobody uses the airport anyway! My road needs paved! Well, my road needs it worse! Well, you haven’t seen my road…

I honestly hope they get the moon program going again. It will take us three months to stuff all the so-called Facebook experts into various rockets so we can blast them all to the moon. And if I knew they were ready to go to Mars…. 

I believe the majority of people out there are not like the Facebook crowd. And if you think I am a little jaded about Facebook commentary, I would rush to tell you that many of them scream when I headline a Trump column like the other day. When I put it deeper in the column, they hardly murmur. I think they react straight off the headlines and lead paragraph.

Moreover, all of these people scream from the mountaintop that everyone from the Eagle, particularly me, is a 100 percent liberal, ready to throw myself at the alter of Hillary Clinton and President Obama. In fact, I’ve been a Nixon/Ford Republican since I was a child and before I could vote I admonished a classmate for supporting Jimmy Carter in 1976. The classmate came back years later and said I was right and he was wrong. In the last presidential election, I want to say I voted for Marco Rubio in the GOP primary, and I know for certain I did a write in for Rubio so I wouldn’t have to vote for Trump nor Clinton. But people still walk up and claim I am a Democrat, even when they have seen me interact with Republicans for years. 

Anyway, you can see Facebook gets my goat. It has its benefits, but it has also become evil and without much civics or history literacy — or civility — to the whole affair. And like Chill Wills said to Rock Hudson in “Giant,” we should have killed it when we had the chance. Now it’s too big to fail. 

But let's get back to the airport ... 

Commissioners were surprised at the Facebook reaction to our recent story. Mind you, it wouldn’t hurt them now that they are on livestream to take a minute each time from now on to explain the grants involved. To be safe, let's start from scratch...

Airport projects the best deal you could have. Really. To start with, Joey Sanders of Sanders Aviation, who actually has a lot to do with helping to run the airport, notes that some area airports are running on $300,000 or $600,000, while the commission is operating this airport on $30,000 a year. 

The projects that you hear at the airport usually are part of a grant that had to come through the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA; they have come to county commissions that way for years. Sanders notes that these are paid for through fuel taxes. 

Of all the government grant projects that have been scaled back in the past 40 years over my lifetime, and there have been many, the best grants now come from the FAA. Why? Because the feds will fund these projects at 90 percent - and then the state pays 5 percent, leaving 5 percent for the local’s to pay for, out of projects that could range from hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is a bargain. 

Of course, sometimes there are special projects. U.S. Sen. Doug Jones recently announced a $1.1 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant for lighting needs. Also, Sanders said Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, came up with $100,000 from  state Public Road and Bridge Funds,  with no local match needed, for 3 miles of new paving on Biddle Road, along with a new parking area at the airport. (We reported about that project at a January 2018 commission meeting.) The bid for the work recently came in at $141,594.40, with an alternative bid $12,131.00, for a total bid of $153,725.40.  Sanders is also helping with the project. 

Sanders said Wednesday many don't understand the paving project. The feds and the state have been screaming for maybe over a decade about how anyone can just wander onto the local runway and taxiway; rental cars have even been left there and people have been seen wandering on foot. It is a disaster waiting to happen.

So, as I understand it from Sanders, officials are now moving to pave a new way for the public to enter and park from the back end, and then they will have to get permission to the airport proper.  Anyone connected to the airport will have to get a new passcode. Security is going to be the watch word, but they had to create a parking area to make it work. 

Needless to say, just about every project at every airport in Alabama is lining up for those 90 percent FAA grants, getting projects in order to submit on a regular basis. They could involve runways, lighting - I think even hangars. It is a wide swath. I’m no expert on it, but I can tell you we all know the feds are pumping in $9 for every $10 needed. 

Now, the FAA money involves aviation grants. They can’t be used for the roads. And I can tell you with the feds giving out with aviation funds for rural airports, counties like Walker County are not going to waste anymore of their local funds than they have to. They have to make local matches, but it isn’t like you think. Usually they save up their funds for just such projects. 

And why bother with the airports anyway? Because the industry that you are looking to have are looking to use these small airports. I know many of you see the local doctors or country club types using the airport, probably with a mind of the Jim Backus character in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, World”  - rich local people with their playthings. Well, their rentals help to generate income to keep the airport going. But they are not the big factor, except they do pay for rentals and gas taxes, giving revenue. 

The big factor is when industrial prospects get off the plane to look at your county. And if they decide to locate, they will come often enough in their planes. That is how they travel. You may remember the ill-fated Bruno’s flight that killed a number of top executives years ago from that grocery company, which had stores in the area. They were making rounds of stores at the time, and that was a major way they did it. They were so powerful that the company never recovered from their loss.

And that’s just a grocery chain. I can tell you companies all across this area use these small airports. Sanders knows of one business who located in the area because of the airport, and every business that has a plant in the area flies into that airport. And we have had major government officials fly in, including a number of governors. (Gov. Guy Hunt once flew to Hamilton when it had 7,000 feet of runway and noted to a club he had flown into Hamilton International Airport.) 

Sanders has a pet phrase he begged me to put in: "A mile of road takes you a mile. A mile of runway takes you to the world." To me, that also allows the world to come to us. 

So airports are your best bet. They are mostly federally funded anyway and attract the industry and business that can increase your tax base - and then allow for county government to grow and then be able to use funds over time for improvements like roads. It is not an either/or situation. 

Perhaps some of us have become too used to how airports operate within the confines of government circled. and maybe more education could be done about airports. There has been more of an effort in recent years, truthfully. And I’m not sure some people will sit still to listen to that explanation, as they are for chopping off heads at the first chance - it seems to be the official game of Walker County now, via Facebook. But I will tell you the airport will not hurt the roads, but could very well help us all economically.