Local airport officials said they were not surprised when they learned the president had signed a bill recently that reduces funding for local airport projects.

The bill for Federal Aviation Administration funding had been in progress for years, and airport workers, including those in Waterville and Norridgewock, knew federal funding would likely be cut from 95 to 90 percent for local improvement projects.

What they did not know, though, was how they will pay for the additional five percent, which equals a tripling of what towns and cities currently pay for any runway construction, land acquisition, navigational aids or lighting projects. Municipalities are still trying to figure out how to provide the increased contribution.

“If the local community can’t afford it, things go into disrepair. People will fly somewhere else,” said Randy Marshall, assistant manager at the Robert LaFleur Municipal Airport in Waterville.

For the Central Maine Airport, 15 miles north in Norridgewock, the news about funding came at a particularly inopportune time.

After years of planning, it is in the design and permitting phase of an estimated $2.3 million project that involves, among other things, reconstructing its main runway and a taxiway, improving lighting and correcting drainage problems.

Before President Barack Obama signed the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, or H.R. 658, on Feb. 14, the local funding portion of the Norridgewock project was an estimated $57,500. Now it appears it will be a minimum of $172,500.

There’s no set plan yet for how to pay the extra cost, Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said, and when there is it will require selectmen’s approval. But one idea is for the airport to borrow money from the town’s general fund and pay it back over time, with interest.

The airport’s operations are funded by a small amount of taxes each year, plus revenue from hangar leases, plane tie-down fees and fuel sales.

Like all airports, the Norridgewock airport is required to have smooth, safe runways, but it can only maintain them if it has the money, Flewelling said. Though workers inspect the runways daily, the cracks in the asphalt are a problem and need to be fixed soon, she said.

She added that delaying repairs would not only be a safety hazard but more expensive, because project costs will likely increase. And, she wondered whether the federal match will continue to decrease in the coming years.

“We could easily be looking at 85 percent instead of 90,” she said.

Picking up the pieces

Flewelling said she doesn’t blame the federal government for cutting back, or the Maine Department of Transportation for not picking up a portion of the local share, but “once again it falls on the shoulders of the small man to pick up the pieces.”

Before the bill was signed, the FAA had been operating under a series of 23 short-term extensions since 2007, said Kevin Kelley, communications director for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who is ranking member of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.

The bill passed with bipartisan support and provided $63.3 billion for FAA programs through 2015.

One of the programs is the Airport Improvement Program, which combines federal, state and local resources to help fund improvements at airports throughout the country.

“The goal of the Airport Improvement Program is to provide airports with the resources they need to help pay for critical safety projects. Senator Collins understands the importance of reining in federal spending, but she also believes that transportation investments help create jobs now when they are needed most and establish the foundation for future economic growth,” Kelley said.

Money for the program comes from user fees, fuel taxes and other revenue sources, according to the FAA.

Because the federal government formerly funded 95 percent of airport projects, the state and towns used to split the remainder at 2.5 percent each. Now, at least through 2013, it appears as if the state will continue to fund the 2.5 percent amount, leaving towns to pick up a total of 7.5 percent.

“We calculate that we will have enough funding remaining from past bonds to cover 2012 and 2013 at a 2.5 percent state match … For many of you, this change is going to have some huge impacts on some of your projects and may be a financial burden,” the department of transportation wrote in an email at the end of February to town and airport officials across Maine.

Ted Talbot, public information officer for the department, said the state is in the process of adjusting to the funding change. All projects have their funding set through 2013, because of a capital work plan that the department puts together every two years.

“We have yet to identify how it is we will be overcoming this new challenge, but we’ll be working with the local municipalities to solve it,” he said.

The state, not Augusta, will have to make up the funding difference at the Augusta State Airport in the future, he said. It is owned by the state and managed by the city.

The Waterville airport is also determining what impact the funding change will have on its estimated $961,000 project to reconstruct its short runway, City Engineer Greg Brown said. Instead of $24,025, the local contribution may now be increased to an estimated $72,075.

The runway has been closed for years for safety reasons, he said, and the airport was hoping to open it this year. The airport also has plans to pave its longer runway in the coming years.

“To have these changes come out, it’s definitely troubling to figure out how we’re going to come up with that extra,” Marshall said. “It’s a lot of speculation right now.”

Marshall said he is grateful the federal government still pays 90 percent, but he worries about the trickle-down effect if airports aren’t able to complete their projects. If people stop flying in, he said, it will have an effect on businesses and the greater economy.

“Even 2.5 percent is a lot of money for a community like Waterville to come up with when there are so many things that the city needs to invest in,” he said. When the 5 percent is added on top, “it really becomes more than troublesome. It makes doing any project extremely difficult to get everybody on board with.”

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]

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