Commissioners like airport’s expansion plan

By Burk Krohe

City commissioners received a detailed look at plans to upgrade and expand Manhattan Regional Airport Tuesday, and they liked what they saw.

Commissioners agreed that moving forward with preliminary design phases makes sense, especially while federal funding is available.

“I think funding the plans so they’re on the shelf seems worthwhile,” Commissioner Wynn Butler said.

They still had concerns over several issues, though. Commissioner Loren Peppered was the most vocal, expressing concern over the potential for rising fares and the ability to secure federal funding in the future.

“What happens if the federal funds dry up and go away?” Pepperd said.

Commissioners were also sensitive about plans to charge for parking, which is currently free.

“We sold the idea of the airport with free parking,” Commissioner Rich Jankovich said.

Jankovich suggested phasing in a paid parking by charging a modest fee ($1) to avoid “sticker shock. “

Peter Van Kuren, airport director, presented the $48 million worth of proposals to commissioners. Van Kuren noted that up to 75 percent of the costs could be covered by federal funds from the FAA. That means FAA grants could cover up to $36 million of the $48 million price tag. But those funds are not guaranteed.

Ideally, the proposals call for several design phases to start this year, which commissioners supported, with completion in 2017. However, Van Kuren said the completion date would likely be pushed back.

Van Kuren focused the presentation on three of the most pressing issues for the airport including parking expansion, terminal expansion and general aviation apron expansion. Van Kuren said most of the improvements are necessary, as the airport handled 54,496 enplanements in 2011 and 39,126 enplanements in 2010. He said the airport wants to turn the outdated facility into a “gateway to the community.”

“I think for us to continue our growth is line with a lot of the growth in the region,” Van Kuren said.

Parking has become the most obvious problem.

“Over the Christmas holidays all of these spots were full,” Van Kuren said. “We had people parking in the grass.”

Van Kuren said some parking stalls have been added here and there over the years, but he characterized those additions as “Band-aids” to the greater problem. The proposal calls for the addition of more than 300 new stalls by 2015 to meet immediate needs. That would bring the total number of stalls up to 648. By 2030, the proposal calls for nearly 900 stalls to meet future demand. Improvements to the loop road in front of the terminal building, increasing space for dropping off and picking up passengers, are also planned.

If the airport does not charge for parking, the improvements could be eligible for federal grants. However, Van Kuren said parking lot improvements are low priority projects for the FAA and based on his experiences wouldn’t earn funding.

Airport officials developed five scenarios to pay for the parking improvements without federal funding. One calls for the improvements being paid for entirely through bonding by the city, three call for a split between bonding and parking fees and one calls for funding the improvements entirely through a $3.25 daily parking fee.

Commissioners seemed to lean toward the latter. Pepperd and Commissioner John Matta were skeptical that a $3.25 would be able to cover operating costs of an automated parking system, though. They said that figure would need to be increased.

“I think we need to get to that $5 mark,” Matta said.

Van Kuren also covered plans to improve and expand the airport’s terminal, which would be eligible for federal funding. He said the improvements have been broken up into four different phases. The first phase, planned for 2013, would add a boarding bridge for passengers as well as new restrooms and rental car concessions. The second phase, planned for 2014, would add new airline ticket counters and a baggage area. The third phase, planned for 2015, would add a second boarding bridge for passengers. The final phase is planned for after 2020 or “as needed” based on demand and would add another baggage claim and airline ticket counter. 

Van Kuren said there are also plans to move the general aviation business, Kansas Air Center, from the commercial aircraft apron to the general aviation side of the airport. He said it will relieve congestion, but will require improvements to the general aviation apron.

He also addressed plans to rehabilitate and expand the airport’s main runway. The current proposal anticipates improving the runway in 2017, but Van Kuren said due to the significant cost it would probably be pushed back. The airport plans to work in partnership with Fort Riley on the runway improvements.

The potential closure of the runway for an extended period of time concerned commissioners. Pepperd said the effect could be detrimental to airport profits and stall progress. Pepperd and Matta also questioned Van Kuren on the airport’s ability to secure FAA grants in the future.

“Those are things we still need to explore with FAA,” Van Kuren said.

Van Kuren said airport officials will be in contact with the FAA, and Ron Fehr, city manager, noted that Congress last year passed a two-year FAA bill. Fehr said that will give the city a set period of time to start improvements.

“I think from that standpoint it’s somewhat encouraging,” Fehr said.

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