Westmoreland County Airport Authority seeks $5M for Arnold Palmer growth |

Westmoreland County Airport Authority seeks $5M for Arnold Palmer growth

Speaking to Westmoreland County Airport Authority members on Tuesday, state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, recalled an event during which she ran into a representative of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, who said the region doesn’t have room for two major airports.

“I told him, ‘Go ahead and close down,’ ” she said, laughing.

She and her chief of staff, Rob Ritson, attended a meeting at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity because the authority wrote her office a letter in October requesting $5 million as a line item in the state transportation budget.

The authority wants the funding to aid a large-scale, $7 million project to expand the terminal building and a $15 million project to strengthen and widen the runway, said board member Don Rossi, finance committee chairman.

“This building was built for 10,000 people,” he said. “Our infrastructure is not built for what we’re lucky enough to have.”

Since February 2011, Spirit Airlines has flown 682,678 people in and out of the airport, according to latest figures.

In November, 14,661 passengers passed through, a part of 228,439 passengers so far this year.

“We’re doing what we can; we’re a small airport,” Rossi said. “The need that exists for the future of the airport is evident.”

Government aid has jumped from $517,000 in 2011 — before Spirit Airlines began flights there — to $4.3 million in government aid and contributions from Spirit.

The authority has about $6 million dedicated for the terminal expansion, with a $3 million bond issue for the long-term projects outlined in a 20-year master plan in the works, Rossi said. He expects that plan to be approved in February or March. Then the terminal project can be completed in the next two to three years.

Ward said that when Tom Wolf takes over as governor in January, different funding opportunities for the airport may be available.

Ritson said the capital budget may open up in January or the state can find “nontraditional” or other avenues for funding in other places.

When the state Department of Transportation reconstructs Route 981 in a two-year, $10 million project beginning next year, Ward’s office can communicate between the two entities if necessary, Ritson told the board.

“It’s more than just the funding area,” Ritson said. “This is a good growth area; we recognize that.”

Rossi said the aviation industry is volatile, and the success of the airport has relied in part on Spirit Airlines’ flights. But with investment in the infrastructure, the authority hopes it could be marketable even with another airline.

“We are a proven airport that can handle 300,000-plus people to a destination such as Florida without any trouble. If they would pull out, we would hope another airline would see the possibility to utilize our services,” Rossi said. “This is all a gamble. It’s been a gamble since it began.”

Realistically, Arnold Palmer Regional probably will never be a close competitor with Pittsburgh International, Rossi said, but offering quality service and expanding when possible is important.

“We’re never going to compete with Pittsburgh; we’re not in that business. But we do serve a little niche that we do have right now,” he said. “The competition is heating up out there, and we’re doing what we can.”

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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