Wednesday, May 12, 1999

Isle airports
might get a
federal windfall

Improvement funds of $52.7
million would arrive here if
a House bill flies

By Pete Pichaske


WASHINGTON -- Last year, it was highways. This year, the target of congressional efforts to improve the nation's transportation system is airports.

And Hawaii's airports, like those elsewhere, could be a big winner.

A bill already approved by the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would triple the amount of money for Hawaii for such airport improvements as new or expanded runways.

The state's seven airports would get $52.7 million, compared to $17.6 million this year.

The windfall is mirrored in other states and is part of a House effort to spend a greater share of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. Financed by a tax on airline tickets, the fund was set up 30 years ago to pay for airport improvements. But over the years, much of it has either gone unused or been used for other purposes.

"Congress has been using that money to plug holes in the deficit," said Scott Brenner of the transportation panel. "We don't think it's right that they're taking money from ticket taxes and using it to cut taxes. They should use it for the purpose intended."

The campaign for more airport money is fueled by an explosion in airline travel. The nation's airports served a record 611 million passengers last year, and the number is expected to top 1 billion by 2007, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

With the lull in Asian tourism, Hawaii's airports are not booming like many on the mainland. But improvements are on the drawing board in the isles, and the added federal money would be welcome.

"We would love for the grant program to increase and for the trust fund money to go back into the industry, like it's supposed to," said Hawaii Airports Administrator Jerry Matsuda.

Runways at two Hawaii airports, Lihue on Kauai and Kahului on Maui, are already scheduled to be extended to accommodate bigger airplanes, said Matsuda, and the federal grants could help pay for the extensions.

At Honolulu Airport, which would get the biggest share of the federal pie ($21.9 million under the House proposal), the money could help pay for such planned improvements as a new parking area for wide-body planes, lights for intersecting runways and an area where jets could be washed, said Hawaii airport officials.

"We always have some projects, and we would like to see the funds," said Dennis Higa, project coordinator who manages federal grants for the Airports Division.

Although it is the brainchild of Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, the powerful Pennsylvania Republican who steered last year's highway bill to success, the House aviation bill has been criticized as a budget buster.

Rep. Frank Wolfe, R-Va., chairman of the Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, wrote in a letter to colleagues that such generous airport funding could force budget cuts in other areas, such as the Coast Guard and Amtrak. That concern has been echoed by Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.

The Senate version of the airports bill, meanwhile, includes a more modest increase in funding. The Senate version did not specify how much money would be spent in each state.

Both the House and Senate bills are expected to be debated and voted on by the end of the month, after which a compromise will have to be negotiated.


How our airports would benefit

Federal money for Hawaii airports under House proposal:

Airport			This year		Next year (proposed)
Honolulu International	$7.3 million		$21.9 million
Kahului			$2.9 million		$8.6 million
Kona International	$2.1 million		$6.4 million
Lihue			$2.1 million		$6.4 million
Hilo International	$1.9 million		$5.6 million
Molokai			$700,000		$2.0 million
Lanai			$600,000		$1.7 million
Source: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

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